Akron area travelers putting Cuba on their maps
Area residents are among the new wave of travelers taking advantage of lowered barriers to visiting Cuba, land of white beaches, old cars and black market cigars.
"This is not something that is a typical trip," said Summit County resident Jay Mellon. "That makes it interesting."
Cuba is "almost like an alternative universe," Mellon said, noting it is just a 90-mile trip from Miami.
The trip comes less than two years after President Obama eased restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.Mellon is part of the Greater Akron Chamber cultural-exchange tour heading later this month to the Caribbean country that has been off limits to most Americans for 50 years.
More than 30 area people are going on the nine-day visit that is a "people-to-people" cultural exchange, legal as long as it is led by a U.S. government-licensed tour operator.
The local response has prompted the tour company to add a second bus for travel in the country, said Rebecca Guzy Woodford, senior vice president of the Greater Akron Chamber.
People who signed up via other chambers also will be on the trip, organized by Chamber Explorations, a Los Angeles company that has developed a niche partnering with chambers nationwide.
Cuba's isolation from the United States is a draw, Guzy Woodford noted.
"This is a really unique thing for us," she said.
Ian Scott, with Chamber Explorations, agrees: "There's very few places left in the world that even the well-traveled U.S. traveler hasn't been to, and Cuba is one of them."
Visitors are going 50 years after the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba began. The measure, which limited most U.S. travel to the country, aimed to trigger a change in the Communist regime of brothers Fidel and Raul Castro. Some Americans have skirted the restrictions, flying to Cuba via another country, such as Canada.
Cost per person is about $3,300 (double room), which includes the 90-mile flight from Miami to Havana, eight nights of hotel stays and 19 meals, bus travel in Cuba and admission fees for stops.
Mellon, 37, a partner at AtNetPlus Inc., a Stow information technology firm, is going with his wife, Katina, a veterinary technician.
Mellon said he's interested to see how the country's isolation from American culture has played out.
"It's close, but also it's so far away," he said.
Katina Mellon said she hadn't thought about going to the country before her husband told her of the tour. "It sounded fascinating and the focus is the people there," she said.
Some of the activities include visiting a family of potters, a stop at a cooperative village and a session at the country's literacy museum, where the travelers will learn about efforts to educate rural families.
Other sites on the itinerary include the 18th century Cathedral of Havana, which like other Havana churches is known for its exterior that includes coral hauled in by slaves.
The group also will visit Havana's Revolution Square -- where Pope Benedict XVI celebrated an open-air Mass in March.
The travelers will visit a coffee plantation, a fishing village, a cigar factory and the farm of Ernest Hemingway, where the author lived periodically from 1939 to 1960.
Also on the itinerary is the Bay of Pigs museum, focusing on the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961, and Jagua Castle, a fortress built in the 1740s to protect the Bay of Cienfuegos from pirates.
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.