How Trump's new Cuba policy will impact US travelers

Brittany Jones-Cooper
Reporter
Tourism from the US to Cuba faces an uphill climb.

President Donald Trump, on June 16, announced he would reverse some of the steps President Obama made to normalize relations with Cuba.

During his speech in Little Havana, Miami, Trump criticized the previous administration, and promised to cancel the “one-sided deal” he claimed only enriched the oppressive Cuban regime.

“The profits from investment and tourism flow directly to the military. The regime takes the money and owns the industry,” he said. “The outcome of the last administration’s executive action has been only more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement.”

Critics of Trump’s decision believe the opposite is true. According to James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan nonprofit focused on ending trade restrictions to Cuba, the new policies will actually hurt the Cuban people.

“It takes money out of the pocket of Cubans in the private sector and puts it in the hands of the Cuban regime,” Williams told MarketWatch.

This political back and forth will likely have a big impact on US tourism to Cuba, which got a bump after Obama eased travel restrictions between the two countries in 2016. Airbnb says that Cuba was its ninth largest market for Americans traveling abroad in 2016, and tour companies, hotels and airlines have all invested time and money into making Cuba an attractive destination for US travelers.

Here’s what you need to know about booking a trip to Cuba in the Trump era.

Can Americans still go to Cuba?

Yes, but it’s going to be more difficult. Trump’s new policy will enforce the ban on tourism that many hoped would be lifted. While Obama’s policies loosened restrictions, it never technically removed the ban. Currently, there are 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba, including visiting family, journalistic activity, religious activity or educational activity. These categories are very specific, so a lot of travelers chose the educational route because they can classify their trip as a “people-to-people” visit, which is intended to increase international understanding by interacting with people in different countries. As long as travelers sought out a “meaningful interaction with locals, Americans could plan their own itineraries and visit Cuba under the Obama administration.

Trump will remove the “people-to-people” visits, so those who want to tour Cuba will have to find another reason. Under Obama, travelers could choose one of the 12 categories, and no one really questioned their self-declaration. Under Trump this process will be more closely monitored, and travelers will be audited regularly to make sure the rules are being followed.

What if you already booked  a trip?

Don’t change a thing if you have a trip planned under the “people-to-people” category. The changes will not take effect until the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issues new regulations, so you can continue with your itinerary if you’ve already completed at least one travel-related transaction (like booking a flight) before Trump’s announcement on June 16.

In this May 24, 2015 file photo, US tourists walks outside the Bodeguita del Medio Bar in Old Havana, Cuba.

Do you still have time to book a trip?

Technically, but you’ll have to move fast. Trump is eager to get the policies enacted, and has asked the Commerce and Treasury departments to approve them within 30 days. Even so, it can take months to get the new rules finalized; in fact, it took Obama four months to enact his Cuba policies. So there might be a small window in the next couple of weeks, but it won’t last long.

Legal ways to visit

While individual people-to-people travel will be retracted, group trips are still permissible as long as they are with an approved organization. These organizations include a full-time schedule of educational activities “intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

In other words, free time and leisure travel will be hard to come by. So much for freely strolling through the streets of Havana, dining in Plaza Vieja and sipping on Cuba Libre’s.

Another caveat to the group people-to-people trips is that they’re more expensive. On average, a 6-10 day trip can cost anywhere from $3,500 to $5,500. If you booked air travel yourself, and stayed in one of Cuba’s “casa particulares” (no more than $30 a night), you could do the trip for much less.

Not-so-legal ways to visit

If you’re feeling rebellious, consider booking your flight through Cuba or Mexico. The fact is Americans have been sneaking into Cuba this way for decades. This process consists of departing and arriving in a neighboring country that allows travelers to visit without restrictions.

You won’t have any issues getting into Cuba, but once you arrive back in the US, customs officials will likely ask about the countries you visited. If you mention Cuba, that will cause problems. If you lie, you’ll be violating federal laws, which could lead to punishment. We’ll leave that decision up to you.

How to get there

Last year there were dozens of headlines about the growing number of US airlines launching routes to Cuba. That’s changed somewhat.

Due to low demand and higher-than-expected operating costs, several airlines have stopped flights to the island. On April 22, Silver Airways suspended service to the Cuba, and this month Frontier Airlines did the same.

But there are still plenty of options. JetBlue, Delta, United and American Airlines all plan to continue their scheduled routes to the island.

As for cruises, Trump’s policies won’t really affect current operations because shore excursions already meet many of the requirements. “Royal Caribbean is pleased there is no impact to any of our cruises to Cuba as announced in the new US policy toward Cuba today,” the cruise line said in a statement. “Our guests are already enjoying curated people-to-people experiences under the approved categories of travel.”

Brittany is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.

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