More than 40 tour-and-travel service companies are asking President Donald Trump to continue the relaxed travel regulations between Cuba and the United States as part of his ongoing review of U.S.-Cuba policy. In a letter dated May 24 and signed by a diverse group of travel providers and associations—among them the National Tour Association, Distant Horizons, the Caribbean Biking Company and Cuba Educational Travel—46 companies urged the new administration to consider the "benefits of increased travel to Cuba to both the American and Cuba private sectors," and not to rescind the Obama-era relaxation of travel restrictions that has led to skyrocketing numbers of U.S. visitors to the island this year.
"U.S. citizens deserve the freedom to travel across the globe without restriction from their own government, allowing them to act as ambassadors of freedom and American values abroad," noted Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the 9,000-member American Society of Travel Agents, one of the signatories of the letter. "With our recent consumer research showing Americans support lifting the Cuba travel ban by a 3 to 1 margin, we urge the Trump administration to not only keep in place current regulations but to call for a lifting of the statutory ban on Cuba travel."
In an appeal to Trump's campaign commitment to create jobs, the travel agencies emphasized the growth of the Cuba-related travel industry since the rapprochement began between Washington and Havana. "Due to increased demand, our companies have brought on additional staff to handle the high volume of travel to Cuba," the signatories noted. "We are providing jobs to American workers, paying local and federal taxes and contracting U.S. companies for our services." If travel to Cuba continued to expand, the travel service providers would "hire more American workers," according to the letter. But, the letter warns, "a rollback of the current policy would lead to significant layoffs at many of our companies."
Similarly, according to the letter, American travelers are aiding the expansion of the emerging private sector in Cuba. "Many U.S. travelers visiting Cuba stay in privately run B&Bs, dine at private restaurants, hire independent taxis, and purchase goods and services from entrepreneurs." A recent survey of U.S. visitors to Cuba by the polling firm Public Opinion Survey found that 76 percent of U.S. travelers to Cuba stayed at a private-owned home or bed and breakfast for all or some of their stay while 99 percent reported eating in a privately owned restaurant (known as a paladar). Some 85 percent said they used privately owned taxis for transport during their trip.
With Obama's authorization last year of direct commercial flights to Cuba as well as cruise ship routes, travel from the U.S. has soared. More than 614,000 Americans visited Cuba in 2016. In 2013, the year before the U.S. and Cuba decided to renew diplomatic ties and normalize relations, only 90,000 U.S. citizens traveled legally to the island. Earlier this week, Expedia.com announced it was adding Cuban hotels to its popular travel booking website.
Cuba travel is also expected to get a boost from the success of The Fate of the Furious. The film, which has already grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, opens with 15 minutes of alluring scenes from Havana, and an extended car race down the Malecón, the oceanside road that runs along the edge of the city. When the arch-villainess (played by Charlize Theron) asks Dominic Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) what brought him to Cuba, he responds: "The same things that bring everyone to Cuba: culture, people, beauty."
The travel industry letter comes as the Trump administration is finalizing a major review of Obama's effort to normalize relations with Cuba after more than half a century of hostility and conflict. Only two weeks after his election, Trump threatened to roll back Obama's opening to Cuba unless Raúl Castro's government agreed to a "better deal" for the U.S. and the Cuban people.
Since Trump's inauguration, however, his administration has undertaken a broad, interagency review of the policy, weighing a series of modifications ranging from curtailing U.S. business opportunities on the island to once again restricting the amount of cigars and rum that travelers can bring back to the U.S. An announcement on Cuba policy is expected soon, although it remains unclear if and how the policy will be substantively changed.
Travel executives remain hopeful that the President will take a businesslike approach to Cuba policy. "We need to move forwards, not backwards," states Collin Laverty, president of Cuban Educational Travel, who organized the petition to Trump. "It's time to be pragmatic and prioritize people—not insider politics, which the President has campaigned against."