What Trump's Policy Changes Mean for Future Travel to Cuba

The tightened rules could create significant challenges for U.S. travelers.

By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJuly 13, 2017
By Liz Weiss, Staff WriterJuly 13, 2017, at 4:18 p.m.
U.S. News & World Report

What Trump's Policy Changes Mean for Future Travel to Cuba

Cuban flag over Plaza de la Cathedral at sunset, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Keep these potential policy shifts in mind when planning a trip to Cuba.(Getty Images)

If you've been planning to visit Cuba ever since former President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions to the Caribbean island nation in March 2016, you might need to pivot your vacation plans. On June 16, President Donald Trump announced a new policy that would ban American tourists from self-directed journeys, defined as "people-to-people educational trips" that operate outside of an organized tour group.

There are no immediate implications for American visitors, but the framework for the new Cuba travel rules, which will be developed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Controls, is expected to be announced in the coming months. "Right now, everything is the same as before, but that could change once OFAC publishes its revised regulations," says Deanna Ting, hospitality editor at travel media company Skift.

While the long-term policy implications are still shaking out, prospective American visitors are already facing a flurry of questions: Can I still travel to Cuba legally? What steps will I need to take to plan a future trip to Cuba? Will there be more stringent limitations for commercial flights there? Where can I find approved accommodations? And how will the tightened regulations be enforced?

To help you stay prepared for the upcoming changes, U.S. News gathered intel from travel experts. Here's a primer on potential policy shifts – and how they might impact you in the not-so-distant future.

You Will Need to Travel With a Licensed Organization

"The good news is that all 12 categories of travel, including people-to-people travel, are permitted; the embassies in both Havana and Washington, D.C., will remain open; and Cuba has not been placed back on the list of state sponsors of terror," says Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, a nonprofit organization that works with the U.S. Department of Treasury and offers legal tours to Cuba. Other authorized categories for travel to Cuba include religious activities, journalistic activity, athletic competitions and humanitarian projects.

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Still, under the new rules, Americans will be required to travel with an authorized organization on people-to-people educational trips. To plan a trip to Cuba legally, Americans will need to travel with a licensed organization that meets OFAC’s requirements. Additionally, the eligibility for each group could become more narrowly defined, explains John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based nonprofit. President Trump "could choose to be constrictive and define narrowly who is eligible within each of those categories," he says, pointing to restrictions on what entities U.S. travelers can patronize such as Cuban military-operated hotels, restaurants and businesses.

While the policy changes will negatively impact individuals looking to travel on their own, small group tours will be unaffected. "We're excited by the fact that the program we have created really does check all of the boxes that have been put forward by the Trump administration," says Gavin Tollman, CEO of tour operator Trafalgar, adding that on the company's small group tours, visitors can interact with locals and enjoy culturally immersive activities.

While tightened restrictions are underway, "the beauty of Cuba doesn't change," he adds. "Tourism is and will remain one of the most impactful ways to drive economies," he says. "I would imagine that tourism will be one of the key catalysts to make sure more and more travelers understand the world we live in," he adds. Rather than building walls, we can break down barriers through travel, he adds.

Already Booked? You Can Still Visit Cuba Legally

If you've booked accommodations or flights to Cuba, regardless if it's a personal educational trip, you may proceed with your plans. No matter whether the travel is scheduled before or after the new rules are unveiled by OFAC, they will be approved "as long as those transactions are consistent with the Obama administration's approved Cuba travel regulations as of June 16 [2017]," Ting explains. "If you are planning a trip to Cuba right now, and haven't yet purchased your flight or booked a place to stay, I'd say you should proceed with caution," she adds.

Cruise Lines and Commercial Air Carriers Will Continue Trips to Cuba

Unlike other sectors of the tourism industry, "cruise lines will benefit from the reversal," Kavulich says. Since cruise lines (and licensed small tour operators) offer approved cultural exchange tours, they can operate as they do now. "And cruise lines could make the argument that it's easier for Americans to travel to Cuba by traveling with them since cruise passengers don't have to book any hotels; they just sleep on the ship," Ting adds.

Another silver lining: "Nothing will change for airlines or consumers regarding the booking of air travel to Cuba," Ting says. But on the other hand, if interest in visiting Cuba wanes in light of the changes, "the airlines may cut capacity even more so than they already have done," she says. Currently, major carriers such as American Airlines and JetBlue Airways offer easily accessible and cost-effective routes to Cuba.

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Some Accommodations Will Be Off-Limits

Under the new restrictions, U.S. citizens will also be unable to stay in accommodations operated by the Cuban military, which controls much of Cuba's hotels, restaurants and tourism operation. "And presumably, they can't spend any money with those hotels, or in state-owned restaurants or other businesses, either, which is extremely hard to do in a country like Cuba, where almost everything is state-owned," Ting adds. (More on that in a moment.) Instead, Americans will need to find civilian-operated hotels. American travelers will be able to stay in private houses (called a casas particulares) or an Airbnb.

"Any U.S. hotel company looking to do business in Cuba would find it extremely difficult without entering into a deal with GEASA [Cuba's Grupo de Administración Empresarial SA], and that's now prohibited under Trump's policy," Ting explains. While Marriott International's Four Points by Sheraton property is currently open in Havana, other properties that were reported to debut as part of the Marriott portfolio, including the Hotel Inglaterra and the Hotel Santa Isabel, have delayed their scheduled openings over concerns with a provision in the Trump administration's policy that restricts businesses from entering deals with the Cuban military. "While OFAC said that deals in place with military entities prior to the new regulations might be permitted on a case-by-case basis, the future of Marriott's two planned Luxury Collection properties is still an open question at the moment, as is its current Four Points by Sheraton," she explains.

You Will Need to Be Mindful About Where You Go and Where You Spend

"If [the categories are] expansively interpreted, it could put the area of all of Havana off-limits," Kavulich says. And with the government managing hotels, retailers and ground transportation, there will be increasing challenges for travelers. They will need to be careful about where they eat, where they buy rum and all activity in Cuba, he adds.

Another challenging component of the new policy: enforcement. "How are travelers going to be expected to know what's a state-run business or not? Essentially, Americans traveling to Cuba under the new regulations will have to be very mindful of where they're spending their money, and definitely hold onto any receipts," Ting says. While the Treasury and Commerce departments will oversee the restrictions and law pertaining to travel to Cuba, the enforcement methods and rules are still unknown.


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