At first, June 5th, 2019 looked like the end of travel to Cuba for Americans. No more cruise ship visits. Elimination of all people-to-people program trips. Tough rhetoric against the Cuban government from the Trump Administration. Every Cuba lover was freaking out, figuring they had either missed their chance to visit the island nation off the southern coast of Florida or they could never visit again.
But the initial headlines were alarmist and in some ways 180 degrees from the reality. Travel to Cuba has become a little more complicated. That is true. You can’t jump on a seven-day cruise out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami to the Caribbean with stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago. You also can’t take your private yacht or fly your private jet to Cuba. Similarly, the many tourists who were skirting the intent of the rules by using them to vacation in Cuba, complete with trips to the beaches and sightseeing in Havana, will find those loopholes specifically prohibited under the new regulations. Despite the changes, any American can still buy a ticket on any one of the five airlines that offer direct flights to Cuba from various points of departure in the United States. Those trips are legal under the Support for the Cuban People program, which has the same 12 categories of permitted reasons to travel to Cuba as the previous people-to-people program, which had governed travel to Cuba for nearly 20 years. “The U.S. government basically consolidated the people-to-people program into the Support for the Cuban People,” says Tom Popper, the president of insightCuba, the largest tour operator for trips to Cuba. “I’m seeing a lot of interest this summer for trips during the fall and winter.” The bottom line is Americans can still travel to Cuba under those 12 categories of permitted travel in the Support for the Cuban People regulation. Those categories include: family visits; official business for the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental agencies; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions. Travelers also can still buy Cuban cigars and Cuban rum in Cuba and in third-party countries during their travels and bring them back to the United States. The limits are the same as before: $800 worth of purchased goods, but the number of cigars imported cannot exceed 100. If you exceed those amounts, and stay within an ambiguous definition “for personal use,” you pay only an import duty of four percent on the excess quantities. But based on anecdotes reported to Cigar Aficionado, travelers should be wary of exceeding the limits on cigars, because an individual customs agent can declare on the spot that they are for resale, not personal consumption, and therefore seize the cigars. So how do the new regulations work? Years ago, a traveler had to solicit a specific license from the U.S. Treasury department to travel to Cuba legally. But those requirements were loosened years ago, and now, even in the wake of the June 5th ruling, each traveler buying an air ticket to Cuba is asked only to self-certify that he or she is visiting Cuba under one of the 12 permitted categories. The traveler is then required under the regulation to comply with the basic rule that all interactions—from daily activities to which hotels they stay in and where they eat—be directly with the Cuban people, and not with Cuban government entities. They also are required to keep a detailed itinerary of their activities and expenses, and for a period of five years be ready to show them to the U.S. government. Those rules are no different than what was on the books when the Obama Administration began a diplomatic thaw in 2014 that led to the opening of an official U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016. But enforcement was nonexistent. What does all this mean in practical terms? First of all, if you were planning on seeing Cuba through ports of call on one of the cruise lines, you have to make other plans. More than 800,000 travelers were scheduled to arrive in Cuba on board ships during the course of the next year, and those stops have been canceled. The cruise lines have created new itineraries, in some cases (when the June 5th announcement was made) while the ships were at sea. The cruise lines have offered discounts and incentives to people who had booked cruises with stops in Cuba going forward. The air travel providers remain committed to their schedules. American Airlines spokesperson Laura Masvidal says that the airline is not only continuing to operate its full schedule to Cuba, but has added two daily flights since the June 5th announcement. One is from Miami to Santiago, Cuba, and the other is an additional flight from Miami to Havana, bringing the total daily round-trip flights on that route to six. She declined to respond to questions about the airline’s projection for demand or the percentage of seats occupied on each flight. While airlines are very reluctant to release information on demand for seats, their actions suggest demand remains high on all the Cuba routes. A Delta Airlines statement says it has not changed its flight schedules to Havana as a result of the Trump Administration action. Delta flies one daily round trip from Atlanta to Havana, and two daily round trips to Havana from Miami. Other airlines flying to Cuba include JetBlue (from New York’s JFK and Fort Lauderdale), Southwest (from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale) and United (from Newark). Some airline analysts have speculated that since many of the cruise ship travelers may still have interest in visiting Cuba, once they learn they can still travel by air, flights may actually increase in 2020. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimated that about 893,000 persons flew from the United States to Cuba in 2018, with two-thirds of them having relatives in Cuba. In all, Cuba received nearly four million tourists in 2018. There has also been confusion over whether Americans traveling under Support for the Cuban People could lodge in hotels. The original SPC regulations said people could only stay in private homes. But the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) clarified immediately after the June 5th announcement that all travelers could now stay at hotels as long as they were not on the published restricted list, which focuses primarily on hotels owned by the Cuban military. The list includes dozens of hotels on the island, among them the Conde de Villanueva, the Ambos Mundos and the new and opulent Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, which opened in 2017. Some analysts believe there is a gray area, allowing a traveler to stay at one of the restricted hotels as long as it was booked through an offshore agency and the traveler doesn’t pay the hotels directly. “My advice to people if they have a question is get in touch with OFAC,” says John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “They are not trying to catch people. They want to keep people from doing something wrong.” v