Jim Holtzman has hiked ancient trails to Machu Picchu and explored the temples of Cambodia. He’s dived with Great White sharks in Australia and gone bungee jumping in New Zealand, which he describes as the perfect way to overcome jet lag.

“I’ve been to many, many places, had many experiences — some pretty strange — and I was looking for the next big thing,” said Holtzman, 53, a medical supply company CEO who splits his time between Houston and Chicago when he’s not off on exotic excursions around the world.

His latest adventure to a certain forbidden Caribbean island, however, had a special allure. In the half-century since the U.S. closed the doors to Cuba for its citizens, the communist-ruled island has developed an aura of mystery for travelers.

“Cuba had some kind of cachet to it,” said Holtzman, who went on a five-day trip in December with his fiancee. “It’s a place where very few can go and most don’t know about. I thought, very few people get to go, so by God I want to go, and I want to be the first to go.”

Thanks to looser regulations that went into effect in 2011, more experienced travelers are able to see the place of their imaginations, with its cigars, vintage cars and tropical climate. A small but increasing number of travel agencies — including two in Houston — can now arrange trips for U.S. citizens within the framework of federal law.

As legal travel to Cuba begins to gain traction, travel agencies are poised to benefit. Several major vendors already have created packages for Cuba in anticipation of piquing interest this year and next, said Michelle Weller, a Travel Leaders spokeswoman in Houston.

Cuba, under an economic embargo for nearly 50 years, is still not fully accessible to visitors. Potential visitors cannot simply buy a ticket and hop on a plane to Cuba. Travel service providers, authorized by the federal government, must arrange the necessary itineraries, legal documents, air travel and other accommodations.

Travel packages can range from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the type of trip.

Weller said travel to Cuba leans more heavily on travel companies to arrange. She said vendors are also capitalizing on “the next big thing.”

“I think they feel it’s a place they can market,” she said. “They are always looking for the hot new destination.”

In 2011, the Obama administration cleared the Treasury Department to grant “people-to-people” licenses to expand travel opportunities for Americans to offer educational and cultural trips. It also expanded the number of U.S. airports cities authorized to fly to Cuba to include Houston’s Bush Intercontinental.

Tom Popper, president of New York-based Insight Cuba, called the changes made by President Barack Obama in 2011 a “game changer.” He estimated the growth in Cuban travel by U.S. citizens has been about 26 percent year over year since the regulations were loosened.

Pent-up Demand

About half a million Cuban-Americans went to visit family in Cuba, and 125,000 to 150,000 did so through the people-to-people licenses last year, Popper said. He estimated 40,000 to 100,000 travel there illegally each year, through Mexico or Canada.

“There has been a pent-up demand for Americans to see Cuba for 50 years,” Popper said. “Once they find out that it’s possible, they want to go.”

Companies like Insight Cuba, a travel agency for Cuba-bound visitors since 2000, provide itineraries and tours and arrange the necessary documents. These trips include educational aspects, such as tours of tobacco and rum factories or visits to Cuban elementary-school classrooms.

Holtzman and his fiancee, Linda Palus, traveled with 13 others from the U.S. on a trip organized by Insight Cuba. Their itinerary was focused on jazz and how American music was influenced by Cubans. They also learned to dance, and their activities included a morning jazz dance party at a club and several private concerts with Cuban musicians.

“It was always high on my list,” he said. “I had been talking about it for two years and got a chance to pull it off.”

Linda de Sosa, a travel consultant and vice president of Houston’s Woodlake Travel, said a few of her clients have already requested trips to Cuba for next year.

“Cuba has been of interest because it’s right here and forbidden,” de Sosa said. “Well-traveled people in Houston are looking for where they have not traveled yet. People are curious.”

Two Houston Vendors

Cristin Waters and her fiance, Guy Rodgers of Seabrook, last year visited more than 10 countries, from England and Switzerland to Spain and Mexico. Now they’re planning a trip to Cuba for January 2015.

“It’s my favorite kind of vacation, with the beaches with crystal-clear waters,” said Waters, 43. “I’ve been to all the surrounding islands, and it’s just one of those places that’s been forbidden, and now I want to go there.”

Rodgers, 54, who owns a Channelview-based cargo container company, has already been twice to Cuba in the last 10 years.

“We visited the rum factory, went to all the bars and raised some hell,” Rodgers joked. He said he and his friends also were “kicked out” of a bar famously frequented by Ernest Hemingway.

“It was beautiful,” Rodgers said. “The reason for us wanting to go was we wanted to see it before it was open to Americans and a Hilton and McDonald’s showed up.”

A Treasury Department spokeswoman said the Office of Foreign Affairs Council has issued 332 people-to-people licenses to companies. Travel service providers cleared by the federal government organize travel to Cuba from the United States for all authorized licenses, such as people-to-people groups.

Most of the companies cleared to provide travel to Cuba are in Florida. As of June, there were two in Houston, one in Dallas and another in Austin.

History and Culture

Bobby Butler, chief compliance officer with Universal Weather and Aviation in Houston, said it takes about 18 months to gain a license to provide travel to Cuba.

“I think that to Americans, Cuba has been the forbidden fruit,” Butler said. “You see more and more Americans traveling there.”

Travel experts acknowledge the majority of visitors are Cuban-Americans. Isabel Herrero of Seabrook moved from Cuba when she was 16 in 1962 and returned for a wedding about eight years ago. Herrero, 70, said her hometown of Havana and her former country are beautiful, full of history and culture.

“It was very nice to see it again,” Herrero said. “It’s a beautiful city, but the political situation is not a pretty picture. It’s disappointing to see the people living there with no freedom. You have to do what they say if you want to survive, and that’s the way they are living.”

For tourists, however, she said nothing is missing from the hotels and restaurants, from visiting famous spots to enjoying the island’s beaches.

Insight Cuba’s Popper said travelers should take the opportunity now to go to Cuba, in case the political situation changes and the loosened restrictions go away or tighten. A new administration could swing the spectrum another way, as happened when President George W. Bush overturned the people-to-people program that President Bill Clinton had instated.

“It’s hard to know what the future holds,” Popper said. “It’s a unique time to go, and it may not be available in the future.”

Tags: cuba, tourism