Last year was a record year for Cuba’s tourist industry, with an estimated 4.7 million travelers rolling into the Caribbean’s largest nation for a potent dose of rum, revolution and beaches. The boom was fueled, in part, by a big increase in US visitors taking advantage of the looser travel laws introduced by the Obama administration in 2014. But, in the last nine months, a triple whammy of Hurricane Irma, a US Department of State travel warning and new regulations instituted by the Trump administration in November 2017 suggest the influx of Americans may be waning.
Statements from the Trump administration have caused a bit of confusion among American travelers when it comes to visiting Cuba © Roberto Machado Noa / LightRocket via Getty Images
Are less Americans visiting Cuba in 2018?
It’s still early, but it looks like it. There was a 34% rise in American visitors to Cuba in 2016, the year then President Barack Obama authorized individual people-to-people trips. Visitations from the US rose again in 2017 though less markedly and there was a noticeable drop-off after President Donald Trump announced his new regulations in June. There's no specific data available for American visitors in the first quarter of 2018, but overall tourist figures in Cuba were down 7% year-to-date.
What are the new regulations for American travelers?
The Trump administration regulations, announced in June 2017 and enacted in November 2017, prohibit American citizens from partaking in individual ‘people-to-people’ trips to Cuba. Non-academic educational travel is limited to officially sanctioned groups. Travelers on these organized trips must keep a full record of the educational events they partake in.
The measure also bans financial dealings with GAESA, the Cuban military body. This effectively prohibits Americans from staying in Cuba’s state-run hotels managed by the Gaviota brand, including the historic hotels in Havana. Many of the country’s car rental agencies, state-run restaurants, marinas and tours are also off-limits. A new US Department of the Treasury factsheet explains the changes in full.
American cruises and airlines have continued to schedule trips to Cuba © Diana Rita Cabrera / Lonely Planet
Have the Trump regulations completely reversed Obama's ‘opening’?
No. In fact, regulations remain more liberal than they were pre-2014 with many of Obama’s measures still intact. American citizens can still apply for a ‘general license’ to travel to Cuba if they fall into one of 12 different categories. These range from the specific (public performances or athletic competitions) to the vague (support for the Cuban people). General licenses are self-qualifying and require none of the exhausting paperwork that was necessary in the pre-Obama era.
US cruise companies are still running tours to Cuba with record numbers of passengers visiting the country in 2017. American airlines continue to offer scheduled flights to Cuba from half-a-dozen US airports. Qualifying American travelers can still book private accommodation in Cuban casas particulares (homestays) through Airbnb.
Is it safe for Americans to travel to Cuba?
The US Department of State currently gives Cuba a ‘level three’ travel advisory, suggesting American citizens should ‘reconsider travel’ to the country. This somewhat bizarrely puts Cuba on a par with Chad, Pakistan and various other states where war and terrorism are a constant threat. The advisory relates to the mysterious ‘sonic attacks’ reported at the US embassy in Havana in August 2017. To date, the source and exact nature of the attacks is unknown, although no non-diplomatic American travelers have been affected. The Cuban government has denied any responsibility in the ‘attacks’ and even offered to cooperate with the US in investigating them.
Meanwhile, in the eyes of the rest of the world, Cuba’s reputation remains positive. At the World Tourism Fair held in Madrid in January, Cuba was named 'safest country' in the world for tourists.
Popular tourist destinations like Cayo Coco were hit hard by Hurricane Irma, but the Cuban government worked rapidly to rebuild the resort © Marco Cazzato / 500 pixels
How was Cuba affected by Hurricane Irma?
The north coast of Cuba was hit hard by Hurricane Irma, a category five storm when it made landfall in Camagüey province in September 2017. The worst affected areas were the tourist resorts of Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa María, and the towns of Morón, Caibarién, Remedios and Santa Clara. Havana experienced some flooding along the Malecón and damage was reported to houses in the Centro Habana neighborhood. The recovery was characteristically quick, especially in the tourist areas. Most resorts were up and running again by the beginning of the tourist season in mid-November.
How have Trump's regulations affected US travel to Cuba?
On the surface, the measures have altered the perception of travel to Cuba and reversed the light-handed approach of the Obama era. Friendliness has been replaced by frostiness and straightforwardness by confusion. During the boom months between March 2016 and June 2017, many independent American citizens traveled to Cuba on loosely interpreted ‘educational’ visits with no repercussions. This is no longer possible.
The new regulations have also instilled a degree of paranoia in the American traveler reminiscent of the pre-Obama era. Worries about license categories, complicated ever-changing rules and how closely audited people might be when they get home sow uncertainty and mean prospective travelers are less likely to book trips.
The lack of American travelers have impacted family-run private businesses in Cuba © Philip Lee Harvey / Lonely Planet
How will the new regulations affect Cubans?
The new rules will inevitably hit small private Cuban businesses adversely. Americans traveling to Cuba on people-to-people trips in 2016-17 generally made a beeline for well-run, economical casas particulares and high-quality private restaurants and Cuba’s private tourist sector blossomed (even Obama ate at a private restaurant). With this business drying up, casa-owners and restaurateurs, many of whom invested money and expanded their facilities on the promise of more US visitors, are understandably worried. Many have reported far less American guests since summer 2017.
So, should Americans still attempt to travel to Cuba?
Yes. Cuba itself hasn’t changed. It is still a vivacious, inspiring and welcoming country crying out for more US visitors. Nevertheless, Americans should make sure they do their pre-trip homework. Read through the license qualifications carefully to see if you qualify, steer away from Cuba’s government-run hotels and businesses and keep receipts of all the transactions you make in-country. If you’re still not sure, join a cruise or an organized ‘people-to-people’ trip.
Granted, things have got a little more difficult since Obama and Raúl Castro traded pleasantries in a Havana baseball stadium in March 2016, but the door to Cuba hasn’t been locked. You just need to push a little harder to get in.
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