As industry experts pored over the legalese and diplomatic tangle of the Trump administration’s new rules on travel to Cuba, a more positive outlook has begun to emerge for tourism to the increasingly popular island nation.
However, these observers are concerned for the ban on approximately 180 entities – including the recently opened five-star Kempinski Hotel in Havana – that "disproportionately benefit" Cuba's security and military services "at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise in Cuba."
But more important for long-term travel growth to Cuba, these same experts said, are the “optics” of this and other Trump administration moves meant to shed a negative light on travel to Cuba, as well as the uncertainty of a response from the Cuban government.
Individuals can still travel to Cuba
“The reality is, beyond the ban on hotels and other tourism sites, not much has changed beyond renaming the category for independent travel,” said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development at the Cuba/US People to People Partnership, in Riverhead, New York.
While the “people-to-people” category that individual travelers checked off previously to participate in non-group travel has been eliminated, individuals can still travel to Cuba under the approved “Support for the Cuban People” category, said McAuliff, who called it a “change in nomenclature.”
According to the regulations released Wednesday, anyone traveling under this category is required to “engage in a full-time schedule of activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. Such activities must also enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities.”
“The people-to-people category was the most popular prior to these new rules,” said Michael Zuccato, general manager at Cuba Travel Services, in Cypress, Calif., because it gave individual travelers “the most freedom to do the activities you thought were allowed.”
Now, under the Support for Cuban People category, “if the regulation is enforced by every word, there is a change there. But if individuals want to travel to Cuba, they can. The real impact is the confusion and hysteria out there, and the appearance that travel to Cuba is prohibited,” he said.
“Not everyone is familiar with these terms. They are going to be confused.” Zuccato predicts a share shift towards more group bookings.
Other permitted travel categories are: family visits, humanitarian travel, travel for religious activities, professional research and meetings, and official government business.
Under the Support for People category, a traveler can rent a room in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eat at a privately owned Cuban restaurant (paladares), and shop at privately owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropistas). However, in order to meet the requirement of a “full-time schedule,” a traveler must engage in “additional authorized Support for the Cuban People activities.”
Americans restricted from 180 Cuban entities
Meanwhile, American tourists are restricted from doing business with 180 Cuban entities, including two leading tourism agencies, Crucero del Sol and Gaviota Tours. Also banned are certain marinas, tours to venues like the rum distiller Ron Varadero and visits to the newly opened Manzana de Gomez luxury shopping mall.
These restrictions could impact a tourist’s desire to experience authentic Cuban culture, as American travelers are supposed to track their activities while in Cuba, and present a record of them to U.S. officials upon their return if asked.
“Are you going to visit Havana, and not visit the Hotel Ambos Mundos (a former Hemingway haunt)? It’s hard to say what individuals are actually going to do when they get there,” Zuccato said.
Frank Reno, president at Cuba Executive Travel Inc. in Apollo Beach, Fla., lamented the ban on certain hotels he sees as critical to assuring Americans that Cuba vacations will offer the creature comforts they might expect in other destinations. “The Kempinski is a gorgeous hotel. I was there the week it opened. Not being able to send clients there and some of the smaller boutique hotels is going to hurt.”
The new regulations will not affect U.S. travelers who have already booked one element of a trip to Cuba prior to June 16, 2017, while educational travelers with elements booked before Nov. 9 can still travel.
Waiting for the next shoe to drop
Most observers reached this week said that while this round of restrictions is not overly damaging, they wonder how the Cuban government might respond, and whether the highly vocal and anti-Cuban government U.S. contingent might press for stricter sanctions.
“My contacts tell me that the list of banned entities is not final, and it’s my understanding it will be amended,” said Reno. “Some of the hotels I know that are run by the government are not on the list.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has called for the U.S. to ban dealings with Gran Caribe and Cubanacan, tourism entities owned by the Cuban tourism ministry, based on the fact that Cuba’s Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz is an army colonel.
Rubio said the restrictions announced this week “begin to implement President Trump’s June 2017 policy for enforcing U.S. sanctions laws against the Castro regime” but that “bureaucrats in the State Department who oppose the President’s Cuba policy refused to fully implement it.
“I remain confident that this effort by some in the State Department to undermine the President’s directive will be addressed,” Rubio said. Rubio and other members of the Senate and House of Representatives believe the communist government prevents any true independent private sector economy.
Understanding how tourism works
Zuccato remains optimistic. “The people that came up with this idea, to prohibit the hotels, don’t understand how Cuba works. Cuba has been a successful destination without the United States. And if that means changing hotels to different ministries, marketing to different inbound groups, they’ll make the adjustments. I don’t think this will have the desired impact” on the communist regime.
McAuliff said he is more concerned with the impact from the State Department’s “specious travel warning” issued in early October, when the agency could not explain mysterious illnesses amongst the Havana-based American diplomatic corps.
“Combine that with this, and it might be enough to make some people already uneasy about traveling to Cuba, to decide not to do it,” he said.