DAYTONA BEACH — When John Notaras was growing up during the Cold War, Cuba conjured up images of an island fortress populated by communists bent on destroying America.
That vision stayed with him until Charley Gonzalez, a Daytona Beach businessman, talked him into visiting the island nation on a humanitarian trip.
When Notaras stepped foot on Cuban soil, he found the people welcomed him with open arms rather than clenched fists.
“My eyes were completely opened to what a beautiful country it is,” Notaras said. “People will invite you into their house. They offer you food. They offer you coffee. The people are just phenomenal.”
Others could be joining Notaras in traveling to Cuba legally. A policy change by President Barack Obama this past year opened the door to tour operators to offer cultural travel to Cuba under a program known as people-to-people.
With the looser rules, Gonzalez and Daytona Beach videographer Paul Prewitt launched Hot Cuba Travel, one of the first companies in the area to offer cultural trips to Cuba. Only 120 operators hold licenses, said John Sullivan, a spokesman for U.S. Department of Treasury.
Starting at $2,000, Hot Cuba Travel will organize visits based on travelers’ interests.
While it’s now easier to experience the sights and sounds of Havana, visiting Cuba on a people-to-people license isn’t the same as an island-resort vacation, Prewitt said.
“This travel isn’t about going to the beach and sipping a rum drink,” he said.
People-to-people licenses require visitors to stick to itineraries and experience the island’s culture. Visitors stay in casas particulares, which are private homes — similar to a bed and breakfast — permitted by the government to accommodate visitors.
Unfettered travel remains effectively illegal under the embargo. American tourists can technically visit Cuba, but it’s against the law for them to spend money there.
President Bill Clinton created people-to-people licenses in 1999, but the government stopped issuing them in 2003 when President George W. Bush was in office.
In January 2011, Obama renewed the program, citing the need to enhance the free flow of information to the Cuban people.
Not everyone has embraced the policy change. Critics, such as U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, argue the tours will help to prop up the communist dictatorship in Cuba.
In a statement, Ros-Lehtinen said allowing more travel to Cuba is “filling up the coffers of the Castro dictatorship so it can improve its repressive machinery against the Cuban people.” Under the new rules, anyone with a U.S. passport is eligible to travel to Cuba for cultural exchange purposes, Gonzalez said. Travelers must obtain a visa from the Cuban government, along with health insurance. Both of those tasks are handled by Hot Cuba Travel.
Chartered flights to Cuba — a roughly one-hour trip — leave from Tampa and Miami.
Travelers who have accompanied Gonzalez on his trips say there are plenty of reasons to visit the island nation. Dome-like mountains called mogotes tower over some of the world’s best tobacco plantations. The house where Ernest Hemingway penned his novels and the bars where he drank still stand. Buildings dating from the 1700s beckon to passersby. Antique cars patched together through the years because of the embargo cruise the streets of Havana.
Then there is the food. That was one of the best parts of Cuba for Fred Kaiser, an auto dealer from DeLand.
“I’d go again for the food,” he said. “They can do something with pork that no one else in the world can.”
Under U.S. law, visitors can only return with art, music and literature. Packing away cigars, rum or other items is prohibited.
Both Prewitt. 54, and Gonzalez, 53, have a special relationship with Cuba.
Prewitt spent a decade filming a documentary called “Viva Cuba” about the island nation’s people and its culture. The film is set to be released in the fall.
Gonzalez, who owns the audio store Stereotypes, was born in Daytona Beach to Cuban parents who immigrated to America before the revolution.
He visited Cuba when he was an infant in 1959. Because of the embargo, he didn’t return until 20 years later after spending his entire childhood without having ever seen his grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives.
Gonzalez said his business isn’t political, but he hopes that one day tourists and goods will be able to flow freely in and out of Cuba.
“There should be no walls,” he said.