As US airlines ramp up the number of daily flights to Cuba and consumer demand to visit the once off-limits island balloons, some tourists and travel industry insiders fear that the next administration in the White House could slam the door on the newly opened Cuban travel market.
Two years ago, President Obama began the process of lifting an embargo against Cuba that had been in place for more than half a century. Airlines, cruise ships, and hotels were quick to respond to consumer demand. But because the president made those changes through executive order, they can easily be reversed when President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.
“What effect would a return to the closing of Cuba have on tourism? It’s much more complicated than simply reversing the executive orders,” said Erika Richter director of communications for the American Society of Travel Agents. “The changes under the Obama administration have led to new business licensing, commercial flights, along with the corresponding regulatory improvements led by various government agencies. The repercussions are simply much bigger than preventing tourism.”
Trump has expressed discontent with Obama’s handling of Cuba, but has yet to outline specific changes, if any, that may occur to the outgoing president’s policies. It’s the ambiguity that’s most troubling to those in the industry.
“I think there’s just no way to read these tea leaves,” said Jonathan Bedard, owner of Cubatodo.com, an online travel agency in Lynn specializing in trips to Cuba. “That’s the beauty of Trump. You can read into it whatever you want, but honestly, I don’t think we have a good inkling. I’m an optimist, I’m an entrepreneur, and I like to see the good in everything. For the moment, I’m not overly worried about it.”
Although he is not immediately concerned, some of his customers are. When Trump Tweets lines such as “I will terminate the deal,” Bedard hears from travelers the following day who are worried about the status of their trips. There is also concern that the death of Fidel Castro may change relations between the two countries.
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the president-elect hasn’t yet decided whether he will roll back Obama’s executive order on Cuban relations.
“I’d say ‘wait-and-see’ is true of much of the travel industry, as well as travelers,” said Gabe Saglie, editor of the site Travelzoo. “On the other hand, even a slim potential for change is enough to have another batch of intrigued travelers making the decision to go sooner rather than later.”
Paul Porter and his wife had planned to go to Havana next winter. But after the election, Porter, a retired electrician, said the couple changed course and will now go to Cuba this summer.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s better than missing out completely,” Porter said. “We’re not willing to chance it.”
The uncertainty of future relations between the US and Cuba has done little to curtail interest in the country. Search volume for flights to Cuba on the smartphone app Hopper have increased nearly 100 percent since the start of 2016. Meanwhile, the cost of a flight to Cuba has dropped from an average of $800 at the beginning of 2016 to $250 last week.
Currently Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and United are allowed to fly directly to Cuba. Carnival Corp. started cruising to Cuba in July, and several other cruise companies are waiting for permission to dock.
While companies make investments and consumers clamor to get to Cuba, the large contingent of Republicans who traditionally opposed any of Obama’s initiatives has said it is also against thawing relations with Cuba.
Another sign that relations between the US and Cuba may roll back is Trump’s appointment of Mauricio Claver-Carone. He is one of the most outspoken critics of Obama’s diplomatic approach toward Cuba. Claver-Carone’s organization, Cuba Democracy Advocates, strongly opposes lifting the embargo.
Optimistic travel industry insiders, however, maintain that as a businessman and a hotelier, Trump will not interfere with US companies expanding into the Cuba tourism market.
“A lot of companies have made significant investments in Cuba,” said Jason Clampet, cofounder of the travel website Skift. “It’s all been headed in a direction that works for these companies. At this point, the wild card is Trump.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.