Travel to Cuba?

Rules have changed, but Americans are still going


For decades after the U.S. imposed an economic embargo against Cuba in the early 1960s, few Americans were able to visit the island, mainly because of the prohibition on spending dollars there and a ban on commercial flights. The loosening of travel restrictions first happened slowly, then in a rush under the Obama Administration, which re-opened the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Starting in 2015, Americans were able to book U.S. commercial airline flights to Havana or other Cuban cities, stay in hotels or casa particulares (private homes) and enjoy Cuba’s beaches, music and art.

Then in 2017, President Trump imposed new restrictions and eliminated a favored way to go to Cuba, by cruise ship and/or chartered yacht. But the president’s hardline rhetoric has probably done more to put a damper on U.S. travel to Cuba than his new travel restrictions.

“It’s more about confusion than the actual law because the law has not changed that much,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel. Laverty said his business, which arranges for lodging, transportation and cultural activities, is down by about 25 percent.

Trump reversed some of Obama’s engagement with Cuba to win favor with hard-line Cuban Americans, who viewed American visits to the island as an economic lifeline to Cuba’s Communist government. “I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” Trump told a conservative audience in Miami.

But what the president did fell far short of that. Even under Obama, tourism to Cuba was forbidden. U.S. travelers had to qualify under one of 12 categories of authorized travel, including journalistic activities, professional meetings or research, religious and “people-to-people” activities. To honor the ban on tourism, travelers were required to keep records for at least five years of a full-time schedule related to the category.

But Trump announced that the categories of authorized travel would be more stringently enforced and travel to Cuba will be regularly audited by the Treasury Department to ensure compliance. Trump also banned Americans from frequenting hotels or using other businesses that are “under the control of, or act for or on behalf of, the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel … its affiliates, subsidiaries, and successors.”

That did not have a huge impact since there are plenty of hotels and restaurants without links to the Cuban government and the rental of private homes and apartments was booming --- as were private restaurants and tour companies.

Then two years later, Trump announced a ban on cruises and private watercraft to Cuba, which had become the most popular way for Americans to travel to Cuba. And all flights except those to Havana were banned

Before the ban was imposed, in the three months of this year, 142,721 Americans went to Cuba on​ cruises, ​compared to the 114,832 who ​traveled there by plane. These numbers do not​ ​include Cuban-Americans visiting family, which account for at least 50 percent of U.S. visitors to Cuba.

Sharon Bohmfalk was part of a crew on a chartered yacht company that took American travelers from Key West to Havana for an all-inclusive five-night stay.

Now she boards a plane when she wants to visit her friends in Havana. She says travel is still convenient, but Americans should be aware of restrictions. “You can get on a plane in Miami tomorrow, but you have to prove that you didn’t spend your time on sheer tourism,” she said.

As part of his tough line with the Cuban government, Trump also eliminated the broad “people to people” travel category, under which ordinary Americans could plan their own itineraries as long as they would engage in “meaningful interaction” with Cubans. However, ordinary Americans can still visit the island under the “support for Cuban people” category, either independently or on an accompanied tour. That category requires you to spend money at Cuban-owned businesses, something that’s easy to do with the growth of Cuban entrepreneurship.

So, Americans can book their own flights to Cuba, and arrange their own accommodation through Airbnb or other private rental service, or at one of a dozen hotels that have no links to the Cuban government.  Travelers are advised to book and pay for lodgings before they make their trips.

When booking a flight to Cuba, airlines usually ask what category a traveler is using, and if that traveler does not fit into the other categories, he or she can choose “support for the Cuban people.” Those traveling under this category must fill their days with activities such as attending concerts or taking nature tours or salsa classes, and keep a daily log of those activities and receipts for spending on lodging, restaurants and other things.

According to Laverty, since the change in regulations airport officials have not questioned any travel arrangements, not have there been any audits, but that remains a real possibility, so travelers should be careful to follow the rules and keep receipts and travel calendars.

“You just can’t go there and sit on a beach and drink mojitos,” said James Williams, president of Cuba Engage, a coalition of private companies and groups that want to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

The Treasury Department has given some examples of activities it views as supporting the Cuban people. Those include staying in a room at a private home while engaging with the host; eating at privately owned restaurants; shopping at private stores run by locals; and supporting entrepreneurs who are launching their own businesses.

Built into the price of every airline ticket to Cuba is a $25 fee that pays for health insurance while the traveler is on the island. And there’s usually a booth at the gate where travelers can purchase their Cuban tourist cards, the equivalent of a visa. The fee varies by airline.

U.S. dollars are not accepted in Cuba.  There are no ATM’s in Cuba that take American-issued debit cards, and almost no businesses anywhere on the island accept United States credit cards. So, U.S. travelers must bring enough money – which would be converted on the island to Cuban pesos – to pay for everything, including every meal, tour, taxi, tip and bottle of rum. One U.S. dollar is equivalent to one Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC.

To avoid having to keep a written itinerary and receipts or worry that they may violated some U.S. restriction, Americans can also use the services of a travel provider like Laverty’s Cuba Educational Travel. For a fee, those businesses determine a traveler’s interest, set up a schedule of activities, arrange lodging and transportation, keep all records and receipts and make sure travelers are adhering to all new Trump restrictions. “We look at what you want to do, and set up a really great experience,” Laverty said.

While his company continues to take thousands of travelers to Cuba, Laverty said some travel providers that concentrated solely on Cuba have gone out of business since Trump first announced changes to Cuba travel policy in 2017.“We went from years of incredible growth and excitement about traveling to Cuba to this,” Laverty said. “The last two years have been tough…But we’re doing well considering.”

U.S. airlines – American, Jet Blue, Delta, United and Southwest – have also cut back on the number of flights or are using smaller planes on their routes to Cuba.

Williams of Engage Cuba also said it’s the confusion about Trump’s policies, not the actual new restrictions, that have put a damper on American travel to Cuba.

That has been felt on the island, Williams and others say. Having reversed a booming trend, Trump’s policy has hurt Cuban entrepreneurs who enthusiastically welcomed Americans and often built their businesses on providing goods and services to visitors from the United States.

Williams encourages Americans interested in visiting Cuba to pack their bags and go now, before Trump imposes more onerous restrictions on travel to keep his political support among those who support economic sanctions on Havana.

Cuban Americans are split. According to an FIU poll in early 2019, 45% of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County favor keeping the embargo, 44% oppose it, and 11% aren’t sure. But 57% of those polled support the elimination of travel restrictions.

“All this is being driven by Trump 2020 election policy,” Williams said. “It’s a bid to appease a tiny minority.”

By Ana Radelat