Despite ongoing concerns that the U.S. government might further restrict U.S. travel to Cuba, interest in visiting the formerly forbidden destination is still strong, according to a top expert in the market.
“Basically, things are the same as they’ve been in the last two years,” in terms of regulations affecting Americans visiting the country, said John McAuliff, executive director of the Cuba/U.S. People to People Partnership of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.
In a panel discussion at the New York Times Travel Show last week, McAuliff said that “there was a tremendous amount of confusion in 2017” about whether the Trump administration would roll back new rules that made it easier to visit the island nation. “But, in fact, nothing has changed.”
That means, he said, that travel agents can book their clients on a variety of trip itineraries, including FITs, just as they could in early 2017, under regulations that were issued under the Obama Administration after it restored diplomatic relations with Cuba. Even last year’s move to restrict the hotels where U.S. travelers can stay “largely do not impact American-used facilities,” McAuliff added.
And one of the main changes for independent travelers, he pointed out, is semantic: What used to be called “People to People” travel is now labeled as “Support for the Cuban People.” But otherwise, it still serves the same purpose, which is to allow Americans to visit the island without having to join a more formal, organized group tour. Most stay in a home accommodation – known as a “casa particular” – and eat in private restaurants, or paladares, in order to have more direct contact with Cuban people.
The designation is one of the 12 approved categories of reasons under which U.S. citizens can legally travel to Cuba; others include journalism, humanitarian aid, and visiting family and friends. Tourism continues to be a prohibited category, however.
Travel with groups or on cruises is “completely unchanged,” he said. Cruise lines have stepped up their offerings and, this year, more are coming on board, he said. Last year, 650,000 Americans visited Cuba, and an increasing percentage of them are arriving by sea.
However, as McAuliff explained, the perception among consumers that Cuba is off limits is hard to shake. And it’s already having an effect on demand for flights. After initially rushing to grab new rights to fly to the formerly forbidden destination, U.S. airlines have pulled back somewhat, although the Miami-Havana market is holding strong, largely due to the size of the Cuban American community in southern Florida.
Steve Powers, owner of Hidden Treasure Tours in Long Beach, New York, and an ASTA regional director, told the panel audience that there’s a hidden benefit to this: Travel to Cuba is one of the best values in the Caribbean region. “Right now, there are very good fare deals to Cuba,” he said. But, he pointed out, “There’s a need to educate clients on what’s permissible and what isn’t. You can’t go on the typical ‘beach holiday.’ That part hasn’t changed.”