Travel to Cuba has become a popular subject over the last year or so. Ever since President Obama relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, many more Americans have been flying to the island nation.
When the travel restrictions were first lifted, some American travel companies were very quick to jump into the market. Before we could even blink our eyes there was a Starwood branded hotel in Cuba.
Then, the floodgates opened when the DOT opened up flights for bidding by US-based airlines. There was a ton of demand from the airlines for the slots at Havana. Some airlines chose to pick up slots at some of the smaller airports, but there was significantly less demand there.
The other case of significantly less demand was from customers. Travel to Cuba from the US did increase. But, the airlines increased the number of flights going in my orders of magnitude. Because of that some airlines quickly backed out of the market after losing plenty of money.
The Obama administration established an embassy in Cuba, and Cuba did the same in the US. US citizens flocked to Cuba, causing some flooding of the infrastructure. There were reports of food shortage and problems getting hotel rooms. Airbnb popped up in a pretty big way.
President Trump campaigned on putting travel and financial restrictions back in place. Certain members of Congress and of the Cuban community clamored for this, reasoning that most of the money flowing into Cuba was going right into the government’s pocket.
Now, Trump has moved forward with proposing changes, though they’re somewhat confusing. The permissible reasons and methods for travel are being restricted:
As part of the new policy, Americans will no longer be able to plan their own private trips to Cuba, and those who go as part of authorized educational tours will be subject to strict new rules and audits to ensure that they are not going just as tourists. American companies and citizens will also be barred from doing business with any firm controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence or security services, walling off crucial parts of the economy, including much of the tourist sector, from American access.
So, that means that flights and cruises from the US to Cuba are going away, right? Not so fast:
Under the directive, embassies in Washington and Havana will stay open and cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will be protected under an exception from the prohibition on transactions with military-controlled entities.
Going To Cuba?
Prior to the Obama changes last year, an American citizen who wanted to travel to Cuba needed to do so through a registered tour company. It appears that will now be the rule again. That likely means we’ll see a significant drop in the number of flights to Cuba.
A Cuban-American who wishes to visit his family may still find a way to be a part of a tour to Cuba. And, someone who was already considering a tour isn’t likely to change those plans. However, the amount of Cuba-bound folks from the US almost doubled over the last year under less stringent regulations. I’m betting most of that growth goes away.
If you plan to head to Cuba, you’ll need to find a registered tour company to take you. The US government wasn’t actively prosecuting folks who went to Cuba in years past. I have friends and family who flew to other countries like Canada or Grand Cayman before continuing on to Cuba. They didn’t face any repercussions. Given the change in tenor surrounding immigration and customs, I don’t think I’d recommend flouting laws during this administration.
There are still many questions to answer. The Times article notes that one of the Starwood hotels is owned by the Cuban government. They have a signed agreement to manage that hotel. Will the Trump administration force them to terminate that agreement? How many flights will be left when the dust settles?
I don’t see this situation having a quick resolution. Without getting deep into the geopolitical situation involving Cuba, I don’t see either the US or Cuba changing their mind drastically. It was disheartening to hear stories of Cubans who couldn’t get enough food to feed their family because of all the Americans traveling there. And yet, at least some of the dollars spent by Americans in Cuba went into the pockets of people who needed that money.
It was surprising to see the Cuba travel restrictions relaxed last year. I can’t say I’m terribly surprised by the most recent news. But, I am disappointed.
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