Travel

Travelers to Cuba will soon face more obstacles under new restrictions

Since the embargo was loosened under former president Barack Obama, US travelers have been flocking to the island.

Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press/File 2016

Since the embargo was loosened under former president Barack Obama, US travelers have been flocking to the island.

At a speech in Miami on Friday, President Trump announced a plan to tighten rules on Americans traveling to Cuba, putting an end to most individual travel to the country and vowing to closely monitor those who do visit.

Trump said he would roll back parts of then-president Barack Obama’s executive order at the end of 2014 that opened the communist-ruled island to the United States.

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“Easing restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people,” Trump said at the rally. “They only enrich the Cuban regime.”

Since the embargo was loosened, US travelers have been flocking to the island. Several American airlines and cruise ships were granted permission to provide commercial service to Cuba in 2016. A record breaking 3.1 million Americans visited Cuba in 2015.

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The good news is that US residents will still be able to visit Cuba. The bad news is that Trump’s new restrictions will make it much more difficult to do so. Most travelers will now have to visit the country as part of a group tour or on a cruise ship rather than being able to explore on their own.

According to Eben Peck of the American Society of Travel Agents, the embargo rollback will take several months to implement, so those with immediate plans to visit Cuba will not be affected. Under Trump’s order, the Treasury and Commerce departments will be given 30 days to begin writing new regulations, and they will not take effect until they are complete.

“Yes, you can go,” Peck said. “Yes, you should go. These rules will not take effect immediately. Even after that you’ll still be able to visit Cuba, but there will be more hoops.”

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Americans are allowed to visit Cuba under one of 12 categories, including religious, journalistic, and artistic activities. Most Americans have been going to Cuba under a category called people-to-people.

Individual people-to-people visits were the most popular category of the 12. But today, the president instructed the Department of Treasury to end individual people-to-people visits.

Under the Obama administration, the 12 categories were not closely monitored and enforced. That will change once the Trump administration’s new rules go into effect. Now, those who do travel into the country will be subjected to stringent review. For tour operators, the announcement means stricter audits by the government, which requires travelers to legitimately fall into one of the 12 exemption categories.

Trump’s new restrictions are aimed at stopping tourists from spending money at Cuban government-owned hotels and restaurants. Visits to those establishments will now be prohibited. However, visitors will still be able to eat at private paladares (restaurants operated out of private homes) and can stay in private homes or Airbnb properties.

The stricter rules do not interfere with commercial flights from the United States to Cuba, but they will undoubtedly curb demand. Earlier this year, several airlines already cut back on service to Cuba after over-anticipating demand. By eliminating individual people-to-people travel, those numbers are certain to drop.

Trump’s stricter rules will probably boost demand for private tours and Cuban cruises, which will not be affected.

“We will review the extent of the tightening of the travel rules, but our guests have already been traveling under the 12 approved forms of travel to Cuba since we first undertook our historic first cruise to Cuba more than a year ago,” Carnival Cruise Line said in its statement.

The near-universal sentiment from the travel and hospitality industries was that Trump’s tightening would be bad for both US tourists and residents of Cuba.

Marriott International, which already has one hotel open in Cuba and plans for a second, urged the Trump administration to rethink its decision.

“We are at an important moment in the relationship between the United States and Cuba,” Marriott said in a statement. “Travel between our two countries continues to increase and strengthen an evolving bilateral relationship. It would be exceedingly disappointing to see the progress that has been made in the last two years halted and reversed by the administration.”

Cuba is currently the second most visited Caribbean island, according to David Scowsill, president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council. Foreign travelers spent $2.8 billion in Cuba in 2016. He called Trump’s move a “retrograde step for the Cuban people.” US citizens have been traveling as individuals rather than on group tours,” he said. “Rolling back this policy and allowing US citizens to only enter the country on organized tours means that fewer tourism dollars will find their way to the Cuban people. Tourism is a force for good, it bridges gaps between cultures and empowers local people by creating jobs and income streams. We would urge the Trump administration to support the Cuban people.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.
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