New Rules on American Travel to Cuba Include Cruise Ban
Beginning on Wednesday, the United States will not permit group educational and cultural trips known as “people to people” trips to the island unless they were booked before June 5, the Treasury Department said in a statement. Nor will it allow cruises, private yachts or fishing vessels to stop in Cuba. Group people-to-people trips have been used by thousands of American visitors.
The move left tour companies and cruise lines assessing the impact and how they might have to modify their operations in Cuba.
Cruises have become the most popular way for Americans to travel to Cuba since 2016, when President Obama reopened relations with the island. This year, between Jan. 1 and April 30, 142,721 Americans went to Cuba on cruises, compared to the 114,832 who traveled there by plane. These numbers do not include Cuban-born Americans visiting family.
“Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement on Tuesday explaining the administration’s move.
Tuesday’s announcement came nearly two months after John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, said the Treasury Department would crack down on what it called “veiled tourism” and tour operators were not surprised to hear about the changes. But Tom Popper, president of the tour company Insight Cuba called the cruise ban, in particular, “devastating to the travel industry and the Cuban people.”
The federal government has long restricted travel to Cuba, with the rules changing from one presidential administration to the next. Under the changes introduced by the Obama administration, Americans in 2016 were able visit either in groups or individually, as long as they fell into one of 12 categories, including “people-to-people” visits and “support for the Cuban people” trips, the two most popular.
Under “support for the Cuban people” category, individuals can travel to Cuba, but they must have an itinerary filled with meetings and visits with local business owners, artists or others. They must plan on participating in local activities and staying in a private home, instead of a hotel.
“You have to have a full schedule of activities like going to meet with one community project and then another,” Mr. Popper said. “Going to hang out at the beach in the afternoon won’t cut it.”
Mr. Popper said his company is changing its tours from “people-to-people” to “support for the Cuban people,” a shift other tour providers will likely make.
“As we’ve done in years past — we’ve been providing Cuban travel for five presidents now — we’ll change what we do to remain legal, remain compliant and show Americans an amazing side of Cuba,” Mr. Popper said.
ViaHero, an online platform that connects travelers with locals to plan personalized trips, said the new regulations could help bolster business for tour providers who already give “support to the Cuban people” tours and for local businesses.
“We’ve been operating in the ‘support for the Cuban people’ category for three years and don’t have to make changes to our operations,” said Greg Buzulencia, C.E.O. of ViaHero. “And more people will use this category, which should help locals by making people book casa particulares.” Those are small-scale lodgings that are run by individuals, not the Cuban government. Many of them are listed on Airbnb and other online booking platforms.
Major cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean operate trips to Cuba. They did not respond to requests for comment. But Pedro Freyre, a lawyer who represents cruise lines that travel to Cuba, said that, “If you have a cruise booked for Thursday, you should check with the cruise line; you might not be able to go.” He noted that people who planned to fly and who had booked before June 5 would be allowed to go, even if they fell into the “people-to-people” category.
JetBlue, American Airlines and Southwest are some of the largest American carriers with flights to Cuba. JetBlue and American, as well as United, said they were reviewing the order.
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Frank Del Rio, the president and chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Lines Holdings, summed up the Cuba situation in an earnings call last month, as reported by Seatrade Cruise News. When it came to Cuba cruises, “It’s business as usual until it’s not," Mr. Del Rio said.