What does Trump’s new Cuba policy mean for travel to island?
By Michael Weissenstein and David Koenig
HAVANA — Here’s what’s changing with President Donald Trump’s new policy on travel to Cuba, announced Friday:
Before former President Barack Obama launched detente with Cuba in December 2014, most Americans without family ties to Cuba traveled to the island on expensive guided tours dedicated to full-time “meaningful interaction” with the Cuban people and – in principle at least – avoiding activities that could be considered tourism, which is illegal under U.S. law.
“People-to-people” tour companies needed special licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department and were regularly audited and faced steep fines or loss of licenses for allowing travelers to engage in tourism.
In Cuba, U.S. tour companies were required to contract guides, tour buses and hotel rooms from the Cuban government, meaning U.S. travelers were effectively under the constant supervision of the government. As a result, they were often presented with activities and talks favoring Cuba government positions on domestic and international issues.
Obama eliminated the tour requirement, allowing Americans to travel to Cuba on individual “people-to-people” trips that were in reality indistinguishable from travel to any other country in the world. Travelers were legally required to maintain logs of their full-time “people-to-people” schedules but the Obama administration made clear it would not enforce the requirement.
Online lodging booker Airbnb was allowed into Cuba, and commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba resumed after more than half a century. As a result, U.S. travel to Cuba roughly tripled by the time Obama left office. U.S. travelers are engaging in what amounts to illegal tourism, but they are also pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts that are driving the growth of Cuba’s nascent private sector.
TRUMP’S ROLLBACK, AND WHAT IT MEANS
Trump will re-impose the requirement that “people-to-people” travelers can only come to Cuba with heavily regulated tour groups. Many Cuban entrepreneurs fear this will stifle the American travel that has allowed so many of them to flourish since the start of detente.
The policy will also ban most American financial transactions with the military-linked conglomerate that dominates much of the Cuban economy, including dozens of hotels, along with state-run restaurants and tour buses.
This will almost certainly make all American travel to the island a complicated maze of avoiding payments to military-linked monopolies ranging from hotels to gas stations to convenience stores.
Sen. Marco Rubio, who claims credit for writing the Trump policy along with a fellow Cuban-American and Florida Republican, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, tweeted Friday that individual American travelers will still be able to go to Cuba for the purpose of supporting the Cuban people, a category that includes helping human rights organizations and non-governmental groups meant to strengthen democracy and civil society.
WHEN DOES IT TAKE EFFECT?
The new realities of U.S. travel to Cuba will be determined by the regulations that federal agencies will produce as a result of the new policy. A presidential memorandum gives the government 90 days before it even starts to rewrite Cuba travel regulations, meaning it could be many months before it’s clear what the change means for American travelers.
The Treasury Department said individuals who bought an airline ticket or rented a room or car before Trump’s announcement could make additional travel-related purchases for that travel under the Obama policy, even if their trip to Cuba takes place after the new, stricter Trump regulations go into effect.
Of course, the mere news of the change is likely to have a chilling effect on travel to Cuba.
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