WASHINGTON — Jay-Z and Beyonce's controversial trip to Cuba four weeks ago has stoked public interest in traveling to the forbidden island, prompting more Americans to seek similar "people-to-people" culture tours.
Insight Cuba, the first and largest of the Cuba tour groups, estimates that public inquiries and bookings have grown by 10 percent to 15 percent since Jay-Z and Beyonce's tour in early April.
"It's had a huge impact. Everything from our call center to our website to our blog to our Facebook page just lit up," said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba. "People were Googling it and curious. The debate got heightened, and also people's awareness of this kind of tour was heightened."
The rapper/singer celebrity couple popularized a small but growing travel phenomenon that taps a pent-up demand to visit Cuba, an exotic time-locked land still off-limits to U.S. tourists. Their highly publicized adventure — while sharply criticized by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and other Cuban-American leaders — also reinforced attempts by many members of Congress to make it easier for almost any American to legally visit Cuba.
Despite a five-decade trade embargo, Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba. But the rules don't make it easy, unless you are Cuban-American.
Roughly 400,000 Cuban-American passengers went to Cuba last year, taking advantage of a 2009 rule change by President Barack Obama that allows unlimited visits to family members.
Another rule change in 2011 allows groups licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department to lead cultural tours of Cuba. The idea was to put more Americans in contact with the Cuban people. Some proponents hoped this closer engagement would build pressure for economic and political reforms in the island nation.
An estimated 90,000 Americans made these "people-to-people" visits last year, up slightly over previous years. Insight Cuba projects that its bookings will increase to 5,000 this year from about 3,000 in 2012.
But the rules are rigorous for these tours, including the one taken by Beyonce and Jay-Z. They arranged their trip through Academic Arrangements Abroad, a nonprofit group based in New York, one of more than 230 organizations licensed to sponsor travel to Cuba.
At the insistence of Rubio and other embargo defenders, all such tours must have an approved itinerary heavy on "purposeful" activities -- such as visits to senior centers, schools and artist studios.
It's not supposed to be a day at the beach.
Beyonce and Jay-Z, while celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary on the three-day trip, reportedly stuck to their itinerary, visiting a school, a children's theater group and a jazz club while meeting musicians.
Rubio and other embargo defenders — who want to sharply limit even family visits — say all these trips put money in the hands of a repressive Castro regime.
Rubio last year stalled Senate confirmation of an Obama nominee — Roberta Jacobson to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs -- until the State Department agreed to impose tighter requirements on tour groups.
Under the new rules, applications to obtain or renew "specific" tour licenses went from about six pages to as many as 600 pages. And they can take weeks or months to process.
"Every day has to be chock-full of approved activities, pretty much from 9 to 5," Popper said. "It's a rigorous day. People are mentally and physically exhausted, but incredibly stimulated and inspired.
"Not everybody wants to travel that way," he acknowledged.
But, Popper added, Beyonce and Jay-Z's trip helped overcome the biggest hurdle to travel by making Americans aware that they can visit Cuba legally through these culture tours.
Hoping to further ease travel, 59 Democrats in the U.S. House wrote Obama in April urging him to let anyone go to Cuba on their own without prior approval by the U.S. government.
The House members — led by Sam Farr, D-Calif. — want to allow travelers to go under a "general" license. As Cuban-Americans do now, visitors could book their trip through a charter airline and sign an affidavit to affirm they have a permissible purpose.