What Trump's new Cuba policy means for travelers to the island
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
Since President Donald Trump announced his new Cuba policy, Tom Popper's
phone has been ringing off the hook.
Callers have questions, lots of questions, about how they can travel to
Cuba as individuals, what people-to-people tours are and how they can
Others are more emphatic, said Popper, president of InsightCuba, which
takes groups to Cuba on tours that range from exploration of colonial
cities to itineraries centered on jazz in Havana.
"They say they have been interested in traveling to Cuba and they want
to book right now," he said.
Trump made a seemingly small change in who can travel to the island —
individuals may no longer plan their own people-to-people itineraries
and will have to make these educational trips as part of groups in the
future — but those in the Cuba travel business fear it could be a
precursor to a much more restrictive policy on U.S. travel to the island.
A new prohibition on doing business with Cuba's military, which controls
a broad swath of the economy, also could have a big impact on U.S.
travelers. Military holdings include Gaviota hotels and villas, tour
companies that offer everything from Jeep safaris to night tours of
Havana, rental car agencies, gas stations, marinas, convenience stores,
a tourist bus fleet, a small airline, attractions ranging from beer
gardens to discos, and just about every state hotel, restaurant and shop
in Old Havana through its Habaguanex brand.
The Trump administration says the State Department has been charged with
coming up with a list of prohibited entities "with which direct
transactions generally will not be permitted."
But until new regulations are written (a process that Trump has mandated
must begin by mid-July) and the list comes out, tour operators aren't
exactly sure how their operations night be affected in the future.
"What concerns me the most is there is so much we don't know," said Bob
Guild, vice president of Marazul Travel, which offers group tours to the
Marazul has requested hotel bookings through 2019 for its groups and
some of those blocks of rooms are at Gaviota hotels, Guild said.
Although New Jersey-based Marazul doesn't learn how much the hotel rooms
will cost until much closer to travel dates, Guild said Marazul does
have confirmations from Cuban tour companies that the blocks of rooms it
requested will be available.
Guidance put out by Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control would
seem to indicate that even the reservations at Gaviota hotels might be
permitted — at least for a time. Dealings with the Cuban military, it
said, are permitted as long as "those commercial engagements were in
place prior to the issuance of the forthcoming regulations."
"That could mean we're OK," Guild said. "We have already requested rooms
for dozens and dozens of groups through 2019."
By the same token, if individual travelers who planned to travel under
the people-to-people designation booked at least one travel-related
transaction — airline tickets or reserving an accommodation — prior to
Trump's June 16 announcement of his new Cuba policy, they may still
travel under that category even if their trip comes after the date when
the new regulations are issued.
Meanwhile, Obama-administration travel rules remain in effect until the
new regulations come out. That means individual travelers who plan to
visit Cuba under the people-to-people designation can still book a trip.
But unless they plan to travel in the very near future, it's a gamble.
If an individual traveler plans a people-to-people trip for late
September, for example, and the new regulations come out before then,
the traveler will be out of luck.
Individual trips to Cuba will still be allowed. But travelers must make
sure they fit into one of 11 other categories of permissible travel,
such as a visit to relatives or in support of the Cuban people, a
humanitarian trip or to take part in a sports competition or cultural event.
Some travel organizations say they plan to help individual travelers
find opportunities to travel under the 11 other categories.
ViaHero, which operates in Cuba, Iceland and Japan, is a travel planning
service. For a flat $25 a day, it connects U.S. travelers to local
travel partners in Cuba who help them plan their trips, make
reservations for them, and offer recommendations ranging from where to
find the best cup of coffee in Camagüey to locating vegetarian
restaurants in Havana.
Since the company was founded in 2015, it has helped small groups and
individuals plan trips that have mostly been in the people-to-people
"We'll have to pivot our business in Cuba a little bit and make sure we
fit one of the other 11 categories," said Greg Buzulencia, the chief
executive and co-founder of ViaHero. "But the new regulations will still
allow us to be successful and stay in business in Cuba. Whatever
travelers are interested in, we can find ways to connect them with Cubans."
"Most of our clients are staying at casas particulares [privately owned
lodging] and eating at private local restaurants," he said, "but we'll
need to be more careful to make sure we're avoiding military-owned
"I don't think the new policy will have much impact on group travel,"
said InsightCuba's Popper. Among the many hotels the company has used
for its groups are two Gaviota hotels — the Meliá Santiago de Cuba and
the Meliá Cayo Santa María.
InsightCuba will make adjustments if necessary under the new
regulations, said Popper. "A lot of the wholly owned Gaviota hotels are
in the keys and are resort hotels. Most tour operators don't stay there
because they haven't been destinations for people-to-people tours."
Tour operators can still select other Cuban hotel brands not affiliated
with the military — Cubanacan and GranCaribe, for example — and it's
possible Cuba could rebrand and assign some tourism-related companies
now under the umbrella of GAESA, the military's huge conglomerate, to
the Ministry of Tourism or other state entities.
A couple of years ago at Cuba's International Tourism Fair, known as FIT
Cuba, the government announced it was forming Viajes Cuba, an entity
that would bring together all the Cuban tour companies that work with
But at this point, the plan doesn't appear to have gone very far. "So
far we're still working with the same Cuban tour companies as always,"
Travel audits expected
Meanwhile, the memorandum to strengthen U.S. policy toward Cuba that
Trump recently signed in Miami says the Secretary of the Treasury will
regularly audit travel to Cuba to make sure travelers are complying with
regulations and aren't traveling to Cuba for tourism.
There's also another new twist: Treasury's inspector general is required
to provide a report to the president on how audit requirements are being
implemented within 180 days of the new regulations going into effect.
After that, an annual report is required.
Even under the Obama administration, travelers were required to maintain
records of their Cuban travel transactions for five years. The
requirement remains under Trump's policy but lawyers and those in the
travel industry say they expect much more scrutiny and most likely spot
checks at airports of returning Cuban travelers.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, travel to Cuba
was highly restricted and fines were assessed against travelers who
violated travel regulations. The usual drill was that passengers pulled
aside for additional questioning later received a letter from the Office
of Foreign Assets Control asking for full details of their Cuba trip,
including all receipts, said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who
specializes in U.S.-Cuba law.
But tour operators say they are prepared for additional scrutiny. "We
have a warehouse full of files," Guild said.
"As part of our service we keep all passengers records on file for five
years," Popper said. "We always have the paperwork ready to provide to
our guests, and we're prepared to provide them with an audit-ready
package if necessary."
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Source: What travelers need to know about Trump's new Cuba policy |
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