Tour Operators Scramble After U.S. Ends People to People Travel to Cuba

by David Cogswell
Tour Operators Scramble After U.S. Ends People to People Travel to Cuba

While hotels are now outlawed, staying in private homes instead of hotels could actually further the original goals of People to People travel. Photo: Kamira/

On Tuesday, operators of tours to Cuba scrambled to find ways to adapt after the Trump administration handed down its latest rulings on travel to Cuba. The new ruling appeared to end the People to People category of legal travel to Cuba, as well as to put an end to the American cruise industry there, among other things.

“Our sense is that this is a ban on People to People travel to Cuba,” said Robert Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “The regulation is murky and lawyers have not fully digested all the detail. I think it is likely that we will not be operating our tours for new travelers. This is a sad day.

“This is a shame, in my opinion, since contact between people is the best way to change life for the better on all sides. These Cuba trips have changed lives.”

Tour operators were still waiting for more information from the Department of Commerce Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and reviewing policy statements as they planned their next moves.

“We’re currently reviewing yesterday’s announcement by the Trump administration,” said Jeremy Palmer, vice president of land journeys for Tauck. “We have just two remaining departures to Cuba scheduled for 2019, and our next tour isn’t until November. Right now, and based on our initial understanding of yesterday’s news, we will be operating our upcoming Cuba tours with those guests who have already signed up to travel with us.”

Most tour operators that started taking travelers to Cuba in 2011 did it under the People to People provision, which has now been eliminated. However, although lawyers are still trying to parse the statements from the government to ascertain their meaning in practical terms, it appears that some other categories of travel are still allowed under current regulations.

“Right now we are digging in and trying to verify the true impact,” said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “Details are a bit vague. It appears we will be grandfathered in with anyone currently booked. There are other non-People to People programs still authorized. The key is determining how we fit into these programs, or if we can. We are digging in now.”

The grandfather provision
Those who have booked at least one component of a trip, such as an airline ticket or a tour already will be able to complete their trips. For some tour operators, when their current bookings are fulfilled, that will be the end of the line for their Cuba products for the foreseeable future.

Globus put out a statement saying it would fulfill all the trips currently booked and would stop taking new bookings after June 4, the date the new regulations came down.

Abercrombie & Kent put out a statement saying that while the company is still awaiting further clarification from OFAC, “guests with confirmed bookings made prior to June 5, 2019, will still be allowed to travel, so Abercrombie & Kent expects to operate our Fall 2019 departures as scheduled.”

Apple Vacations wrote on Wednesday that its tour will not be impacted by the regulatory changes as they fall under the "Support of the Cuban People" category of travel instead of the people-to-people regulation. It also said that it's developing new tours consistent with OFAC's new regulations.

“There is still high demand for Cuba, and Apple Vacations will continue to offer opportunities for American travelers to interact with Cuban culture in compliance with OFAC regulations,” said John Tarkowski, Apple Vacations’ President.

Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours, said his company is not affected by the new ruling.

“Since we were licensed to sell Cuba in 2002 we never used the P2P provision,” said Paldi. “We use other legal provisions to get Americans legally to Cuba. All the tour companies that started to sell Cuba in 2011 started to use P2P because they didn’t know anything else.”

In a statement to TMR, Collette said it was "saddened to have lost an important way to connect Americans and Cubans through people to people educational travel experiences, but that it was "accustomed to managing through disruptions in the travel landscape."

“Cuba as a destination has been doing very well for us in 2019 and was up dramatically for 2020, so this will have a drag effect on a portion of our revenue growth in the months ahead.  More importantly, travel has the unique ability to have a positive lasting impact on the people and cultures it connects.”

Beyond People to People
Central Holidays put out a statement of protest against the new rulings that verbalized the bitterness of a travel industry reeling from this latest surprise blow from the government.

“We are disheartened to learn that the U.S. Government has moved forward with even more stringent restrictions on travel to Cuba. Travel is a hugely important part of the human experience. Exploring new countries and diverse cultures, being awed by amazing sights and tasting different cuisines opens our minds and our hearts. We are beyond disappointed that the government has chosen to limit our travel interactions with this beautiful country.”

But beyond its protest, Central Holidays, is already moving into its alternative future.

“However, while the United States Treasury Department has announced this morning that it is removing the authorization for people-to-people group educational travel to Cuba, there are other categories still valid for travel including ‘Support for the Cuban People.’ It is under this authorization that we have been sending passengers to Cuba this year, with individuals staying at Casas Particulares (private homes) and hotels. Central Holidays will continue to market and sell Cuba according to the rules and regulations of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.”

As the Central Holidays statement implies, People to People travel was only one of a dozen categories of legal travel to Cuba. Although it is now off the table, some tour operators plan to adapt and continue sending Americans to Cuba under the category of “support for the Cuban people.”

“While I haven’t concluded my deep dive into the new rules,” said Peggy M Goldman, president of Friendly Planet, “it appears that the only thing that has changed with respect to our company is the rule related to People to People group travel. There are a number of other legal categories that our groups could qualify under and still travel legally. 

“I don’t for a minute expect legal travel to Cuba to stop cold. We have people who have booked trips with us throughout 2020 and we will do our best to honor our commitments to our travelers.”

Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, which has been operating trips to Cuba since 2000, told Travel Market Report that his company will make adjustments and continue operating within the government limits as it always has.

“It’s just another day in the world of Cuba travel, the ebb and flow of presidential elections and what have you,” said Popper.

While the outlawing of cruises will be devastating to the cruise industry, Popper said, it could have been much worse.

“The change with regard to People to People is unfortunate as well,” he said. “However, the Trump administration didn’t go nearly as far as the Bush administration did in 2003. Eleven of the 12 remain categories of travel remain unchanged. The silver lining here is that back in ‘03 under Bush, all 12 were virtually eliminated. So almost no Americans were legally allowed to travel to Cuba, including Cuban Americans to visit family, which was only allowed every three years.”

When the Trump administration handed down its first round of changes in the Cuba travel laws in November 2017, those changes included a revision of the category “support for Cuban people.”

“They rewrote that category to allow Americans to travel to Cuba to allow meaningful interactions with the Cuban people in much the same way that People to People language was written,” said Popper. “It allows you to visit with Cubans, shop with Cubans, eat in private restaurants and interact and to legally travel to Cuba. The one main difference is in order to comply you couldn’t stay in a hotel, you needed to stay in private home.”

In effect, much of what used to be done under the People to People rubric can now be done under the “support for the Cuban people category.”

The new regulations outlaw staying in hotels, but allow people to stay in private homes.

“That category remains wholly unchanged,” said Popper. “So what we’ve done effective this morning was we changed our tours and travel programs to comply with that. So instead of staying in hotels our guests who book from today on will stay in carefully selected private homes that we’ve been using for years when people request them.”

Staying in private homes instead of hotels could actually further the original goals of People to People travel.

“Based on the travel industry as whole, where travelers are seeking more intimate, transformational and meaningful experiences, this speaks to that in a significant way,” said Popper. “We’re going to adapt to the changes as we always have for 20 years. So while yesterday’s news was blow to travel industry and for Cubans in Cuba, options for legal travel are still available.”

InsightCuba will make its programming compliant with the current regulations.

“Activities that guests participate in have to be through independent organizations in Cuba, non-governmental,” said Popper. “Travelers need to engage in a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with the Cuba people, that result in meaningful interactions with the people of Cuba.”

In the time that insightCuba has been placing clients in private homes, the proprietors of the private rooming houses have had the opportunity to invest in their homes and upgrade the facilities.

“We’ve been putting people in private homes for years, as per their request,” said Popper. “Because it’s become popular since the Obama opening, many of the properties we use have made improvements. So there are private bathrooms. The accommodations are modern and updated. That’s one of the benefits we’re going to provide going forward. Accommodations are safe and comfortable so that it’s going to be a pleasant experience.”

So while clients will not be staying in high rise hotels, they will have intimate experiences with the Cuban people, as in the original spirit of People to People travel.

And though the Cuban travel industry is staggering under the blow, and many Cubans have suddenly lost their incomes, the rulings do not end the possibility of meaningful travel to Cuba. Some of the diehard players in the market will adapt and continue.

“Those who have been doing it a long time will remain,” said Popper. “For travelers the options will be reduced. People who want to travel to Cuba will be able to find companies and really have an incredible experience in terms of what most are looking for. Cuba still has the mystique it had 20 years ago. If you’ve never been, you’re still dying to know what it’s all about. So people can continue to experience Cuba for themselves.”  

Unfortunately, though the cloud has a silver lining, the changes will still hurt the Cuban people.

“It hurts the people that live there,” said Popper. “One of the crazy things about the travel policies is that they underscore their commitment to Cuban people, but the policies don’t. Think of all the people who will be negatively affected. Their incomes are going to evaporate.

“Imagine if your livelihood is changed based on the influx of cruise ships. Your family and your extended family are benefitting from this increase of income and then you wake up this morning and that’s completely gone. How do you adjust to that? How do you adapt to that? You can’t. And that leaves devastation in its wake that reverberates throughout the island.”

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