Classic American cars are common sight in Cuba because of the embargo, but if you visit don't expect to spend your time ogling them. The feds only want Americans visiting Cuba if they have meaningful, educational interactions with Cubans. Rapping about carburetors probably won't cut it. (photo by Goggle Images)

CITYWIDE — Dixie Vanderloop doesn’t often hang out at the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce offices on Sixth Street on a Thursday night, but this week was an exception.

She came to watch a slide show presentation on Cuba, a small country with a big history that was finally open to her, if only she could get a spot on the tour.

Never mind the irony of an organization representing the capitalist business community helping to arrange a trip to one of the world’s last remaining Communist outposts.

Three such tours are leaving Santa Monica this year, one through the chamber and the other two through the nonprofit WISE & Healthy Aging, and the spots are going faster than the country’s famous cigars in an unguarded humidor.

One of the trips through WISE & Healthy Aging is already filled up, and Vanderloop wanted to see what the chamber had to offer.

“I don’t know anything about it,” she said. “I like that [the country is] not commercialized or Americanized.”

For many, the popularity stems from the fact that United States policy has prohibited Americans from hopping a direct flight to Cuba, said Afrodite Pastroumas, district sales manager for Chamber Explorations, the company that is coordinating the trips.

Chamber Explorations only recently received a license to take groups to the foreign land, and it’s already booked organizations through October. The first of its tour groups returned to the United States on Friday.

“If you tell someone ‘You can’t go,’ they want to go that much more,” Pastroumas said.

Chamber trips run around $3,800 for nine days with airfare, travel visa, health insurance, first-class hotel, tours, transportation and all but three meals included.

Despite its diminutive size and neighborly proximity, Cuban-American relations have only just begun to thaw after more than 50 years of tension.

In 1960, the United States government under President Dwight D. Eisenhower slammed the door on the tiny island nation after the recently-Communist country expropriated American holdings on its soil.

The product of that embargo is visible on the streets of Havana, where American cars from a bygone era trundle around on replacement parts imported from Russia and fashioned to fit the old engines.

Travel between the two neighbors has been limited primarily to human rights groups, missionaries and those with family still living under the Castro regime.

That changed drastically in January 2011 when President Barack Obama announced that the Treasury Department would once again issue “people to people” licenses that allow ordinary Americans to take a bite of the forbidden fruit under controlled circumstances.

Companies like Chamber Explorations could apply for the licenses to take tours directly from the United States to Cuba on chartered planes for the first time since former President George W. Bush suspended the program during his time in office.

You can’t just apply for a license and expect to lounge on one of Cuba’s fabled beaches, however.

There are strict guidelines that companies have to meet to prove that their clients are getting more out of the trip than a romp through a strange land, said Jeff Braunger, licensing expert with the Treasury Department.

“We look at the types of activities they want to do, and they have to give us some detailed examples and explain these activities and how they will result in meaningful interactions between U.S. travelers and the residents of Cuba,” Braunger said.

Only 127 organizations hold licenses to travel to Cuba, Braunger said. A New York Times article published June 30, 2011 reported there were only eight companies issued people-to-people licenses. Clearly, Cuba has become a trendy destination.

Simply scheduling a trip to a museum doesn’t make muster, but going there and getting an interview with the director of the institution to get a deeper understanding of the people’s history and culture might.

Those hopping on the plane to Cuba with Chamber Explorations will tour historic cathedrals, examine tobacco fields and watch workers roll cigars in a local factory.

A trip to the Cojimar Fishing Village will reveal the inspiration for Nobel prize-winning author Ernest Hemmingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” and a voyage to the Playa Giron — also known as the Bay of Pigs — will provide an alternate history to an oft-told story of the United States’ botched invasion.

It all intrigues Tish Tisherman, the events coordinator who found the trip for the Chamber of Commerce.

“I would love to go and see what we’ve been deprived of, and what we haven’t been seeing for years,” Tisherman said.

So did the membership.

“We were originally only going to go to Spain and Tuscany,” Tisherman said. “When the information came out that we could go to Cuba, I asked what people thought. They all said they’d wanted to go to Cuba for a long time.”

Now, it’s just a matter of how long these kinds of trips will be open.

Cuba has been a “political football,” Pastroumas said. The Bush administration wasn’t friendly toward the country, and there’s no guarantee that if Obama loses in November, the incoming Republican will take a kind view toward the communist nation.

“If we see a new administration, policy around Cuba would be completely up to them,” Pastroumas said. “I have no answers given an administration change in 2013.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

Editor-in-Chief Kevin Herrera contributed to this report.

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