Travel Weekly: A "sigh of relief" over new Cuba policies

Travel Weekly

http://www.travelweekly.com/Caribbean-Travel/Insights/For-new-Cuba-policies-a-sigh-of-relief?mc_cid=e05bdcafe4&mc_eid=5c57dc9deb

Although President Trump plans to tighten some travel and trade restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba and clamp down on dealings with Cuba's military, which owns many of Havana's hotels and restaurants, the announcement fortunately fell short in overturning all of the Cuba policies that President Obama championed during his last two years in office.

In his speech Friday in Miami, Trump said that current tourism policies were "misguided," but the speech was short on specifics, leading to some confusion and questions.

Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, helped cleared the air.

"The travel industry, Cuban locals and U.S. travelers wanting to travel to Cuba should breathe a sigh of relief," Popper said. "Yes, he went after individual self-certified travel. We knew that would be the first thing to go, but everything else remains the same as before."

"People-to-people programs remain in place. The burden falls on each operator to be licensed to operate such programs. Usually the licenses are good for a year and have to be renewed, but most of us are familiar with how this all works."

Close to 300,000 Americans flocked to Cuba from January through May, according to figures released recently by Havana's National Statistical Bureau.

Since 2000, InsightCuba has brought more than 20,000 Americans to Cuba under people-to-people tour programs, under which travelers are part of an organized, guided tour that follows a strict itinerary of activities focused on engagement and interaction with Cubans.

These programs remained the mainstay of Insight's Cuba product even after Obama normalized relations with Cuba in December 2014 and opened the gates to individual travel last March.

Individual travelers had only to certify that they were traveling under one of 12 authorized categories of travel. Vacationing on a beach sipping daiquiris has never been permitted, but individuals were free to travel and stay where they wanted as long as they engaged in meaningful exchanges with locals.

It was pretty much the honor system, and very few individual travelers were questioned about their activities once they returned to the U.S., although they were required to retain documents and receipts for five years should they ever be audited.

Those days are over now -- or will be once the new regulations go into effect, which could be between one to three months from now. Trump's changes prohibit financial transactions with government-run Grupo de Administracion Empressarial, or Gaesa, and its affiliates, which include Gaviota, the tourism arm that operates the Four Points by Sheraton Havana, the first U.S. hotel to open in Cuba in nearly 60 years. Even Americans traveling legally to Cuba are not permitted to stay in any hotel connected to the Cuban military.

Individual travelers who have purchased at least one component of their trip, such as an air ticket to Cuba, can travel as planned until the regulations are in effect, according to guidelines issued by the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is charged with implementing the changes announced by Trump.

Critics were quick to respond to Trump's speech, including the World Travel & Tourism Council. "The Cuban people are directly benefitting from increased business and leisure travel to Havana," said David Scowsill, president and CEO. "Travel brings income to the people who work in our industry. President Trump's statements indicate that the Cuban people, rather than the government, will be hit by this policy change."

Scowsill called the rollback to group travel a "retrograde step."

"Rolling back on individual travel means that less tourism dollars will find their way to the Cuban people."

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a national coalition of private companies, organizations and leaders dedicated to advancing legislation to lift the Cuban embargo, said, "Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of Americans have traveled to Cuba, stayed in private homes, eaten at privately-owned restaurants, taken private taxi cabs and engaged with the Cuban people. You would be hard pressed to find a Cuban living on the island who would say that U.S. engagement has not improved their lives."

Williams said that the new policy "was clearly written by people who have never been to Cuba, at least not in this century. If they had, they would find that the only thing that restricting travel will do is to devastate Cubans working in the private sector who have relied on American visitors to provide for their families."

Eddie Lubber, president of Cuba Travel Network, has operated programs to Cuba since 2002 and has seen his U.S. business expand, so much so that the firm opened a New York office in 2015.

"These new regulations will hit us directly, and we will have to alter itineraries make required adjustments," Lubber said.

"If we see a gap in our tour programs for U.S. travelers, we will update," he added. "Our U.S. growth will continue, but not at the levels we've seen recently."