When President Barack Obama eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, American travelers, tour operators and airlines lost no time. Curious Americans flooded the island’s colonial cities and tobacco-growing plains; Airbnb added thousands of Cuban homes to its offerings; and a handful of American airlines began direct flights to the island.
But new restrictions announced Friday by President Donald Trump could significantly dampen the euphoric boom in American travel to the island. The new rules turn the clock back to the days before the détente, when most Americans could visit Cuba only as part of an organized group rather than under their own steam — making travel to the island more costly and less spontaneous.
They also put hotels and restaurants run by the Cuban military off-limits, obliging travel organizations to scramble for rooms at hotels run by civilian-run Cuban companies. Still, those who cannot find a hotel room could always stay on a boat. Cruises will apparently be unaffected by the new regulations because fees paid to the military for ports and airports will be exempt from new bans.
Travel to Cuba can be confusing in the best of times, and uncertainty about possible policy changes makes planning a trip there more challenging. Here are answers to some of the questions people have right now:
Can Americans still travel to Cuba?
Yes. But, in the case of people-to-people trips, they will no longer be able to travel outside an organized group. Instead, they will have to travel with an organization that holds a license to take groups to Cuba. They may have to apply to the Treasury Department for a license to travel independently for, say, religious reasons.
What if I have already booked my trip?
According to the Treasury Department, travelers who have already booked part of their journey, even if it is an individual people-to-people trip, may go ahead.
If the trip that they have booked involves transactions with military-run hotel groups or restaurants, that is also permitted, the Treasury said.
How do U.S. citizens get visas?
Most visitors to Cuba, including Americans, need a tourist card to enter the country. Since you will be traveling with a licensed operator, the tourist card will usually be processed as part of the package.
Can you still fly to Cuba on a commercial flight?
Yes. The new policy prohibiting Americans from doing business with the military’s business arm would not apply to airports and seaports. As of August, commercial airlines are offering flights to several destinations in Cuba, including Holguín, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
However, after a rush to snap up routes last year, some airlines — including JetBlue and American Airlines — scaled back the number of flights they offered or began using smaller planes because of insufficient demand.
Silver Airways, a Fort Lauderdale-based regional carrier, scrapped its flights to Cuba altogether in April. Frontier Airlines has also canceled its Havana-bound flights from Miami and Denver.
Still, JetBlue has daily flights from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Holguín, Camaguey and Havana. American Airlines flies from Miami to the same Cuban cities, as well Cienfuegos and the beach resort of Varadero, and Delta has direct flights to Havana from New York, Atlanta and Miami.
Where would U.S. citizens stay?
It is unclear. Because the new directive prohibits transactions with companies controlled by the military, which runs vast swaths of the hotel and tourism sector, staying at many hotels could be out of the question. Travel representatives said they would redirect American travelers to hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan — both of which own several properties in Havana.
Starwood, which became the first American hospitality chain to manage a hotel in Cuba since the revolution, apparently would not be affected by this prohibition and therefore will continue to operate the Four Points by Sheraton.
American travelers may still book a room in a private house or through Airbnb. However, Americans on people-to-people trips, which are the most popular category of legal travel, will now have to travel in a group and larger groups are almost always booked into hotels. Michael Sykes, president of Cuba Cultural Travel, notes that prices at hotels are sky-high, which forces up the price of group tours.
Could you take a cruise instead?
You could. Carnival Cruises in May 2016 began offering the first cruises between Miami and Havana in 40 years. It will continue to do so, it said in a statement on Thursday.
Will anybody keep tabs on what Americans do in Cuba?
Over the past two years, nobody seems to have been keeping tabs on which Americans go to Cuba or what they do there, even though senior officials at the Treasury and Commerce Departments said they took travel restrictions seriously.
Now, the Trump administration is directing the Treasury Department to strictly enforce the law regarding travel to Cuba, including routine audits.
Copyright 2017, The New York Times