Dec. 9, 2013 at 4:38 PM ET
While Cuba remains off-limits to most U.S. travelers, the arrival of a ship full of American college students in Havana on Monday is being greeted as a milestone event in the half-century of contentious relations between the two countries.
Operated by the Institute for Shipboard Education at the University of Virginia, the MV Explorer will spend three days in the communist-run country as part of the Institute’s Semester at Sea program, arriving nine years after its last visit.
“It’s a unique opportunity for the students to see the country and interact with locals,” said Lauren Judge, the Institute’s director of public affairs. “This is also our 50th anniversary voyage, so it’s a milestone for the program.”
The voyage, which started in August, offers 568 students a combination of onboard academic classes and visits to 15 countries over the course of a 115-day sailing.
Cuba wasn’t originally on the itinerary, but when the Institute received a U.S. Treasury license allowing a visit to the island-nation in May, the organization decided to make a stop.
“The voyage was set to end in Fort Lauderdale, so we were able to add Cuba since we’d be going right near there,” said Judge.
That hasn’t been an option since 2004, when the U.S. government suspended most American travel to Cuba, five years after previous restrictions had been loosened under the auspices of “people to people” exchange programs designed to promote cross-cultural relations between Americans and Cubans.
That suspension was lifted in early 2011 and officially sanctioned trips — for example, those not dependent on traveling to Cuba via a third country — resumed that summer.
“It’s always a positive outcome when you have foreigners go to a country where there’s been little exchange,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, a leading provider of people-to-people travel to Cuba.
“It’s an incredible experience for Americans to travel to a country that maybe they’ve only read about, and the opportunity for Cubans to meet Americans is uplifting for them.”
For the students on board the MV Explorer, those interactions will include visits with Cuban families in a Havana barrio, tours of coffee and tobacco plantations and the chance to experience salsa dancing, local arts and a professional baseball game.
Along the way, they may also gain a better understanding of the history that’s defined U.S.-Cuba relations over the last half-century.
“Students look at Cuba through a completely different lens [than older people],” said Popper. “A lot of us experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs as they unfolded. For these guys, those events are found in history books.”
Today, says Popper, they’re traveling during a time of significant change, both in terms of U.S. policy toward Cuba and life on the island itself.
“These kids have a different perspective growing up and may provide a different perspective to people on the island,” said Popper. “And young people are the ones who facilitate change on so many levels.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.