Cuba: Travel Experts React to Trump Administration’s Travel Restrictions
Just a few weeks ago, Caribbean travel expert Jennifer Carr decided to book her first-ever cruise on the adults-only Virgin Voyages to Havana, Cuba to celebrate her 40th birthday next year on the once-forbidden island.
Those plans were essentially canceled Tuesday morning when President Donald J. Trump announced that cruise lines will eventually be fully banned from visiting the island that President Barack Obama made a lot easier to travel to in March of 2016, the year the “people-to-people” program was put into effect.
Although Carr was set to be a client and not make money as an agent on this trip, the news hurts nonetheless.
“This is very disappointing because I have had the opportunity to visit Cuba myself in 2013 through the people-to-people program,” she said. “The local Cuban people were so excited at the thought of more Americans being able to visit, and now we have taken a huge step backwards. Very disappointing for the travel industry as a whole, and the lovely people in Cuba.”
The new regulations effectively wipe out the “people-to-people” program, which gave U.S. visitors, particularly group tours, a pass to travel to Cuba so long as they were taking part in an educational program aimed at teaching Americans about Cuban culture.
However, many in the industry believe there is still hope through the “support for the Cuban people” category of current exemptions for travel from the U.S. to Cuba.
According to the New York Times, that category permits individuals to travel to Cuba only if they 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.”
Carr put down a 20 percent deposit on the trip and, in doing so, gave herself a little hope since a grandfathering provision was announced for those who have already paid for at least part of their trip to Cuba. However, it was confirmed on Wednesday by a representative of the Cruising Lines International Association (CLIA) that cruises will not be included in the provision.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) guidelines “provides that certain group people-to-people educational travel that previously was authorized will continue to be authorized where the traveler had already completed at least one travel-related transaction (such as purchasing a flight or reserving accommodation) prior to June 5, 2019.”
In an email forwarded to TravelPulse by travel expert Stephen Scott, owner of Travel Hub 365 and an advisor with Protravel International in Chicago, Virgin Voyages wrote to agents who had clients booked on its cruises that, “We‘re disappointed to hear of the administration’s decision to significantly restrict travel activity to Cuba.”
“If you have a sailor booked on any of our sailings with a stop in Havana, we wanted to let you know we’ll be reaching out to them by email tomorrow. We’ll also send you a copy to keep you informed,” according to the email. “The entire Virgin Voyages crew is working hard on changes to our voyages, and we’ll be back in touch next week with full details of Havana’s replacement.”
And that was enough to put Scott at ease for the moment.
“Virgin Voyages has been proactive in communicating with every travel advisor it works with, and that’s a huge help to us because we have people asking us for updates all day,” said Scott. “They were the first to communicate with me to tell me they would be on top of it. And they said they will email me when they hear something new. That is so valuable to me.”
Other agents like Caitlyn Gambino, owner of Aum Journeys in Detroit, Michigan, think the news is sad because of the unique travel opportunities that will no longer be available for Americans waiting to visit a country that was off limits for so long.
“It is a disappointment,” she told TravelPulse. “A lot of my clients are interested in Cuba and have been waiting eagerly for things to clear up so they can go. There was a time there when it looked like that time would be soon, but that is now definitely not the case. It’s a shame when the rest of the world has been traveling there for years and people from the United States feel like they’re missing out on seeing something really beautiful.”
But while Tuesday’s announcement was disappointing for a lot of agents and consumers who planned on seeing the island, it wasn’t quite unexpected.
Administration officials noted that these actions “mark a continued commitment toward implementing the National Security Presidential Memorandum signed by the President on June 16, 2017, titled “Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba.”
Jennifer Doncsecz, president of VIP Vacations, Inc. in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in fact, told TravelPulse she has been telling clients since then to “sit tight” and not book any Cuba travel this summer.
“Frankly, anyone who has been following Trump’s policies should have seen this coming,” said Doncsecz. “For our clients, the cruise option was always ideal as the hotel choices to travel to Cuba required our clients to be aware of subpar hotels and, because of how things were run, there was always the threat being moved to a different hotel at the drop of a hat.
“That was definitely a drawback, so the cruise option was perfect. I’m sure the cruise lines are now going to shift things, which means a lot of their itineraries are up in the air.”
But there are also agents like Carr, who expected tighter restrictions, but none that would influence the cruise lines.
“At first, I thought cruise ships wouldn’t be affected and then when the news broke that cruises would have to change their itineraries, I was really disappointed,” said Carr, a travel advisor with The Tropical Travelers in Malvern, Pennslyvania. “This was my first cruise ever and I was so excited to get a big group to join me for my 40th birthday, especially since we would have been docked in Havana for 24 hours. I’ll still be sticking to my plan and hoping the new stop on the itinerary is somewhere just as exciting.”
And she wasn’t the only travel agent whose plans of sipping Havana Club rum in Cuba took a serious hit Tuesday.
Paul Stroncek, a cruise travel specialist with Dreamlines in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was all set to board the Norwegian Sky in July and now is looking for a backup plan before agents receive what most think is inevitable at this point, an official announcement essentially canceling all calls to Cuba.
Many of the cruises to Cuba are expected to be re-routed and not canceled entirely, according to the agents TravelPulse spoke to.
“We are scrambling. I’m beyond upset. I’m mad,” said Stroncek. “I had my Cuba continued-education trip planned later this year. The good news is there are other beautiful islands in the Caribbean: British Virgin Islands, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Aruba, St. Lucia and Bahamas. I’ll have to make other accommodations, but am still beyond upset at this administration.”
Although Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings couldn’t confirm if his trip would be canceled or re-routed, the company did issue the following statement:
“Today, the U.S. government announced new travel restrictions to Cuba,” according to the written statement. “We are closely monitoring these recent developments and any resulting impact to cruise travel to Cuba. We will communicate to our guests and travel partners as additional information becomes available.”
The new regulations will go into place on June 5, 2019, when they are published in the Federal Register. In a statement obtained by TravelPulse, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) said Tuesday’s news will prompt the organization to “issue guidance to all members soon.”
“Given the recent growth in legal U.S. travel to Cuba, ASTA is concerned about the potential for disruption from these policy changes, especially as they relate to the operations of our cruise line, airline and hotel partners on the island,” according to the statement. “ASTA continues to believe that the American people are the best ambassadors of U.S. values abroad, and should be allowed to freely travel to any destination they wish without restriction from their own government.
“Rather than shutting the door to this market 90 miles off our shores, we call on policymakers to enact legislation to do away with the statutory Cuba travel ban once and for all. While today is a setback, we will continue to advocate toward Cuba travel freedom and look forward to the day it becomes reality.”
But not every agent is bothered by the news.
In fact, George Andritsakis, an advisor with Snelgrove Travel Center in Layton, Utah, welcomed the new tightening of restrictions and told TravelPulse it won’t cost him a dime since he doesn’t send anyone there.
“Honestly, I’m all for tightening the sanctions,” he said. “I don’t book Cuba at all and haven’t really had very many people asking for it. I can see how other agents would be upset, as they made money there. But the safety factors just aren’t there for me to be comfortable selling it, or even recommending it.”
And while any Trump news tends to get people’s political juices flowing, many agents like Amanda Bisack, founder of Travelista Travels, an affiliate of the Tzell Travel Group, in Port Jefferson, New York, are putting politics aside and instead focusing on what this means for their job.
“I’ve been selling travel for five years and have had one client ever ask me about travel to Cuba,” she said. “I don’t care which administration puts restrictions on travel to certain countries. If they’re doing it, then it’s to protect us and I’m OK with that. I would love to travel to Cuba someday when our administration feels it’s safe for us to do so.”
As for what it means for the future of U.S. travel to Cuba?
Time will tell, but it definitely doesn’t look as good as it did in March of 2016.