Travelers interested in visiting Cuba have had to pick through a mountain of news stories and information from self-professed experts trying to interpret new travel to Cuba rules introduced by the U.S. Treasury and State Departments last week.
In some cases, media outlets have incorrectly reported that individual travel has been prohibited. Meanwhile State Department and Treasury Department advisories have been unclear about how Americans can comply if traveling on their own.
“We have seen a significant increase in inquiries, and bookings, as a result of the new travel rules,” said Chad Olin, CEO and founder of Cuba Candela, a Miami-based company that creates custom tours to the island nation.
“Individuals looking to go alone are now joining groups. And we’re hearing from people with existing trips looking for clarification,“ Olin told Travel Market Report in a telephone interview. “I think that with all of the recent developments related to Cuba travel, the average American will continue to be confused about what the rules really are and that will lead to more business for travel agents and tour operators.”
By yesterday morning, more than 800 individuals had viewed a Facebook live event Cuba Candela hosted last Friday, attempting to answer questions from clients and consumers. Several hundred people attended live on Friday.
"Support for Cuban People" license allows individuals to travel
One participant asked Olin: “thanks for addressing the 'Support for Cuban People' category. I know you mentioned the 3 categories (private restaurant, house, store), must now be accompanied by a full-time schedule of activities. Given that is vague at the moment, would you suggest changing our category as a People-to-People group license?”
Olin tried to explain that the People-to-People category has been eliminated for self-directed trips. In the future, travelers can only book trips on their own under the “Support for the Cuban People” license.
He also tried to clarify during the Q&A the U.S. government requirements for complying with a “Support for the Cuban People” license. The official 35-page Treasury Department FAQ states that under the amended license each traveler is required to “engage in a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that result in meaningful interactions with individuals in Cuba.
“The traveler’s schedule of activities must not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule in Cuba,” the FAQ states, without adding any additional details. TMR asked a Treasury Department spokesman for clarity, but did not receive a response by press time.
“Treasury still hasn’t told people what a full-time list of activities would be,” Olin said.
"It is unclear how [Treasury] will define 'meaningful interaction,'" said Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel Services, in Cypress, Calif. "In the past, we recommended three to four activities per day of around eight hours. If you are having lunch at a private restaurant, that could take up to two hours."
Examples of "full-time list of activities"
In one example published in the Federal Register, the Treasury Department describes a four-day trip that qualifies when an individual “plans to travel to Cuba, stay in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at privately owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shop at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropista).”
In addition, the traveler “will complete his or her full-time schedule by supporting Cuban entrepreneurs launching their privately owned businesses.”
In a second example, the document describes “a group of friends” who volunteer “with a recognized nongovernmental organization to build a school for underserved Cuban children with the local community. In their free time, the travelers plan to rent bicycles to explore the streets of Havana and visit an art museum.
This trip would qualify, the Treasury Department states, because the volunteer activities “promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba and constitute a full-time schedule that enhances contact with the Cuban people and supports civil society in Cuba, and results in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”
However, in a third example, an individual rents a bicycle “to explore the neighborhoods and beaches, and engage in brief exchanges with local beach vendors” and stays at a hotel that is not on the Treasury’s Restricted List. This trip does not qualify “because none of these activities promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”
Olin believes that this kind of ambiguity “might make it difficult for an average traveler to feel comfortable applying for the “Support for the Cuban People” license, especially since the Treasury Department “can ask for your detailed records from your trip. There is always that possibility of an audit or U.S. Customs inquires when you return to the U.S. If you’re traveling with a licensed group, you don’t have to worry. They take care of that for you.”
In terms of enforcement, Zuccato said "it's very difficult" to know right now. "It really depends on the amount of resources the Administration wants to spend on enforcement."
Only two people constitute a group
Despite the new rules and conflicting news reports, Olin still expects his business to be up in 2018, as more individual travelers turn to private group travel. “Because of the lack of clarity, the average individual traveler will find it difficult to rely on the individual travel license,” he said, but what most Americans don’t realize is that they can still comply with the U.S. government’s rules by booking a group of as little as two people, Olin said.
“We have a lot of clients who do not want the tour bus experience. It could be your own group, friends, family, and you would still meet the requirements,” he said.