Tour operators who take Americans to Cuba were, once again, hammered by an official announcement of further restrictions on travel to Cuba for Americans, though none of them can say for sure what those changes will amount to.
A speech by National Security Advisor John Bolton on Wednesday muddied the waters surrounding travel to Cuba without giving many specifics as to what policy changes are planned. For the moment, there is no change in travel restrictions on American travelers, but the effect of the announcement on public perception may still result in deterring travel to Cuba.
“While the national security advisor, John Bolton, said a lot today at his speech in Miami about numerous changes in U.S. policy towards Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, his mention of U.S. travel regulations to Cuba was very brief and entirely non-specific,” said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba. “For travelers wanting to book travel to Cuba or those already scheduled for travel, today’s announcement provides no change. People continue to book trips at insightCuba and numerous other companies and all existing trips remain as scheduled.”
The speech came as a surprise to tour operators, who were frustrated by the effect such a speech can have on their businesses, even if no substantial policy changes are going into effect.
One of those was Tauck President Jennifer Tombaugh. “Like many, we were surprised and frustrated by the piecemeal nature of yesterday’s events, in which the administration announced ‘new restrictions on travel to Cuba’ without specifically stating what those restrictions will be,” said Tombaugh. “It’s concerning and confusing to our industry, and to our customers. We are eager for clarification, and we continue to strongly support thoughtful, people-to-people travel as a means of strengthening ties between citizens of the U.S. and Cuba, creating unity and understanding, which the world sorely needs right now.”
Imaginary polices, real effects
While actual changes to Cuba travel policies have been few under Trump, the fanfare of those announcements has had a dampening effect on the market, forcing some operators to reassess their commitment to travel to Cuba.
“The Cuba business has seen a major slowdown in the last couple of years, especially from a tour operator point of view,” said Nish Patel, president of Mayflower Cruises and Tours. “New rules and sanctions have the travelers concerned and they are going elsewhere. We have a small Cuba program using a cruise line and we were planning on extending this into 2020. After reading today’s news, we are rethinking and may not promote it for next year.”
For veterans of travel to Cuba, such as Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours, which has been taking Americans to Cuba since 2002, the creation of confusion in the marketplace by politicians is just (ho-hum) business as usual in the Cuba travel business.
“At the moment, nothing is officially published, just some thoughts,” said Paldi. “We need to wait and see what OFAC [the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control] published to understand what is changing. That takes 90-120 days from the moment an official decree is issued.”
There was a sense among tour operators that, once again, their livelihoods are being played with as a political football.
“Since the moment Bolton uttered the words, we have been trying to find out more information about what possible changes to Cuba travel could mean,” said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet. “Despite our efforts, we are in the dark as to what will happen. Back in 2017, there was a similar scare, which created panic among Americans who wanted a legal way to go to Cuba and interpreted Trump’s ‘new’ rules as a mandate against future legal travel to the island. As it turned out, we were still able to visit legally. We hope this time will be the same.”
And though the public posturing itself can hurt business, there is also always the dangling possibility that the president can cut off the market completely if he wants to.
“It is incredibly unfair for the Trump administration to pander to his south Florida constituents at the expense of major American businesses,” said Goldman. “The airlines, tour operators, cruise lines and others involved with travel to Cuba will be hit and hit hard, if they actually end the legal program altogether. We are hoping that isn’t the case.”
Picking up, moving on
Having already taken the hit from when Cuba was topping “hot destination” lists a couple of years ago, most operators who are still in Cuba are settled in for the long haul, come what may. For those operators, it’s time to roll up their sleeves one more time and get to work.
“International Expeditions has chatted with our Cuba Operational Team as well checking in with legal experts after yesterday’s announcements,” said Steve Cox, executive director of International Expeditions. “It is our understanding that nothing announced yesterday impacts how we operate our escorted small-group or private travel programs. We do expect there to be some change in how much guests can spend while traveling in Cuba, but those new limits have yet to be announced. And as a company that has operated legally in Cuba for well over a decade, we’ve encountered daily currency restrictions in previous years, and our team knows how to navigate those issues.”
While the new policies so far have no direct bearing on travel, it’s not clear what indirect ramifications they may have, according to Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures.
“What the new Trump laws allow is lawsuits over confiscated property,” said Austin. “While this doesn’t really affect the current tourism laws, it does create additional ill will. Some are expecting upwards of 200,000 lawsuits. Yet it is unlikely anyone will actually see a pay-out. Cuba does not recognize U.S. courts. As for companies doing business in Cuba, Title III has exemptions for both travel/tourism and telecommunications.”
For Austin Adventures, “the biggest risk is the continued unknown where this administration is going and increased tensions.”
But Cuba tour operators are used to operating on a battlefield. Damn the torpedoes!
“All that said, we are ‘re-launching’ Cuba done the right way,” said Austin, “starting with a special trip this fall to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of Havana. The trip sold out in 72 hours and we are adding additional dates.”