Cuba Travel Update-June 2017
On June 16, Donald Trump announced his administration’s plans to increase regulation for American travel to Cuba. Calling independent travel to Cuba “illegal,” Trump will reinstate and strengthen former restrictions on how U.S. citizens can visit the country.
Earlier this year, I advised readers to get to Cuba ASAP. Although there had been hints that politics might reverse the new ability to travel with Cuban government interference, my main concern at that time was the growing tourism economy. More flights, hotel rooms, and cruise docks will certainly impact the “retro” 1950s feel of the country. Not to mention that the infrastructure is not ready for a tourism explosion.
Back to jumping through hoops
Historically, Americans have had to jump through numerous hoops to visit Cuba, including adhering to some restrictions:
- Only tours by approved companies are allowed
- Free time is extremely limited
- Interactions with Cubans must be predetermined “people-to-people” meetings
- Government-appointed tour guides can avoid entrepreneurial sites and businesses
Meanwhile, Canadians and Europeans have had free access to Cuba. Of the reported 4 million visitors in 2016, 40% are Canadian. The Washington Post reports that of the 615,000 Americans, 330,000 were Cuban-Americans who traveled to visit their families.
What happened in 2014
When the Obama administration presented its relaxed U.S.-Cuba policy in late 2014, after two years of negotiations, the travel ban was not completely lifted. However, individuals could travel outside the Cuba-licensed tour groups for 12 reasons, including professional, performance, educational, and religious activities. The new policy also permitted use of credit and debit cards, as well as approval to bring back $400 of Cuban goods–including $100 of the coveted cigars and rum.
Look for more scrutiny and audits
What will change with the June 16 reversal? Look for stronger scrutiny and enforcement of the U.S. law. Here’s what the experts are saying:
- Travelers must join a tour group for educational purposes
- More questions from U.S. customs officials at the airport
- Requirement to maintain a full, documented schedule while in Cuba
- Need to keep all receipts to show that no money was spent on Cuba’s Grupo de Administration Empresarial (GAESA), including the Sheraton Four Points hotel in Havana.
- Audits of travelers for up to five years after the trip
Also, because of being in a tour group, travelers will lose the opportunity to stay in a private home or to book with Airbnb. Tours will stay in government-run hotels. The Treasury Department will provide a list of prohibited hotels and businesses.
At this time, cruise ships will still be allowed to dock and commercial airlines can fly into Cuba. However, with restrictions on individual travel, tour groups may opt for charter flights, with higher prices.
Trump did not remove the $100 cigar and rum allowance.
Impact of the June 2017 announcement
Travel to Cuba by non Cuban-Americans had been projected to double in 2017. This number will undoubtably decline, resulting in less money spent on new Cuban (non-government) businesses: Airbnb, private tour guides, taxi drivers, small restaurants, and artists.
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, says in the Washington Post, “By requiring Americans to travel in tour groups, the administration is not only making it more expensive for everyday Americans to travel to the island, but pushing them away from staying in private homes…” And that extra expense for visitors? It will go straight to the government, not the people.
On the U.S. side, monitoring the “illegal” travel will be a headache. Regulations and guidelines could take months, then a government agency will need to monitor, audit, and follow up with all the bureaucratic requirements.
As the plan is developed, I’ll keep you updated. The Treasury and Commerce departments have 30 days to start drafting new regulations.
Looking for other places to go in 2017? Read my list here.