The travel industry breathed a collective sigh of relief last Friday, when President Trump announced in Miami that his rollback of President Obama’s Cuba policy would not completely prohibit U.S. travelers from visiting the island nation. In an effort to further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people, among other aims, the “new” policy, according to a fact sheet published on whitehouse.gov, “channels economic activities away from the Cuban military monopoly, Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA)” and “enhances travel restrictions to better enforce the statutory ban on United States tourism to Cuba.”
What does this mean for you as a travel agent who books their clients’ travel to Cuba through people-to-people tours and cruise lines? At the surface level, not much. The policy forbids self-directed independent travel by individuals who were previously able to do so by satisfying one of the 12 authorized categories as defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. It also restricts commerce between U.S. companies and some military-linked enterprises, including hotels, forcing travelers to stay in privately controlled accommodations such as boutique hotels. GAESA, reports Reuters, “boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings, according to Cuban economists,” including the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana and Four Points by Sheraton in Havana, which are both owned by Gaviota, the tourism arm of GAESA.
For cruise lines and tour operators, too, the changes were mostly cosmetic; however, the ramifications of these new rules, which could take several months to go into effect, are eliciting mixed reactions.
Full Steam Ahead
“We believe that Americans should have absolute freedom to travel anywhere in the world, and we oppose anything that abridges that freedom,” says Ralph Hammelbacher, v.p., expedition development for Lindblad Expeditions. “Even though reputable U.S. providers of travel to Cuba may see some short-term benefit as individual travel is eliminated, we believe that in the long run anything that diminishes access to Cuba is not in anyone’s interest.”
Linblad Expeditions’ people-to-people trips to Cuba, like many, have been very popular, and because these policy changes will not impede the line’s operations, it is moving forward with its second season in Cuba, which begins Dec. 6, 2017 and continues through March 2018 aboard the 46-passenger Harmony V.
“We were very concerned about any potential changes, given how popular Cuba itineraries have proven to be with our guests,” said Norwegian Cruise Line in an e-mail statement. “Across our three brands, there are 70,000 guests booked to sail to Cuba who would have been very disappointed if they were unable to experience this spectacular destination. We are delighted our guests will continue to have the opportunity to experience the wonderful culture and incredible history of Cuba along with the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people.”
“For U.S. citizens, Cuba will always remain an exciting place to visit full of culture and history,” says Nicholas Filippidis, director of product development for Celestyal Cruises in North America, who does not anticipate any changes to Celestyal’s program. “We look forward to Cuba continuing to grow as a high-demand destination on and on as its tourism infrastructure continues advancing.
“Our unique cruises to Cuba include two full days in Havana, plus calls at Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, providing [guests with] the opportunity to experience UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites, and delicious Cuban cuisine on board and ashore. We feature Cuban entertainers and staff on board [who] lead interactive and exciting activities including: Cuban cooking demonstrations, Cuban Cocktail Clinics, Cuban music and shows, “Dance Like a Cuban” classes, History of Rum and Cigars, and so much more—all included in people-to-people program offered by Celestyal Cruises.”
Michael Goren, CEO of Group IST, noted that his company, as well, is “moving full steam ahead. We have been operating in Cuba for more than four years, and will continue our extensive people-to-people programs which use Variety Cruises’ 50- to 72-passenger mega-yachts.”
Although President Trump’s tightening of restrictions on the Cuba policy will not directly impact tour operators either per se, they had more than one way of viewing the situation.
Opportunities and Obstacles
“There are many lenses through which to look at the effects of the new policy directive,” says founder of Classic Journeys, Edward Piegza, who has been operating people-to-people exchanges to Cuba via his tour company since 2013. “Independent, do-it-yourself travel suffers the most in the new scenario.
“Narrowing who can travel to Cuba will likely have some moderating effect on that crazed feeling surrounding some of the tourism in Havana and other parts of the island. And in that regard, some of the Cubans in the tourism sector will actually be able to breathe and provide the quality of service that they are hoping will attract well-traveled tourists who appreciate a quality travel experience,” he went on to say. “While some have speculated that airlines might cut back on service to some Cuban destinations, others are speculating that no airline wants to reduce its service for fear of missing out on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be a part of the growth in travel to the island.”
Classic Journeys does not do business with hotels that are owned by Gaviota, “because we already prefer boutique properties that are not large enough for the big tour companies,” says Piegza. “For Classic Journeys, our approach to travel in every region around the world where we explore is what allows us to find the boutique hotels, privately owned paladares and special people-to-people interactions that make our trips special and which keep us solidly in line with the P2P license requirements, including those in the new policy directive.”
In fact, though hotel rooms have become a commodity since the President Obama’s easing of travel restriction to Cuba, “with the new policy directive and in combination with the deep personal relationships we’ve cultivated over the last several years on the island, we are in a position to dramatically reduce the price of our trips,” says Piegza. “In fact, you can be the first to know that we are officially reducing our trip prices to Cuba by $1,000 per person for all departures from July 1 through Dec. 31, 2017.”
Eric Fandek, senior director, product development for Delta Vacations, is also looking on the bright side, saying, “This policy change could drive an increased interest from travelers wanting to experience Cuba. Group people-to-people programs will still be allowed; this may encourage people to want to see Cuba with a local guide and a set itinerary.” Priya Chhabra, global director of marketing at Isramworld, concurs, saying, “Regulations have changed a number of times in the past few years but Cuba still beckons. We are in the process of completing our 2018 offerings.”
Yet some, like Tamar Lowell, CEO of Access Trips, are looking to the future with a level of uncertainty.
“We do foresee the changes having both positive and negative effects on demand so it’s unclear how things will shake out,” says Lowell. “Given that individuals will no longer be able to self-certify on their own people-to-people travel, we would normally expect to see an increase in demand for high-quality tour operators that meet the legal requirements. However, the new regulations have already increased the confusion that exists around travel to Cuba.
“When people see headlines such as ‘Trump Clamps Down on Travel to Cuba,’ they think that they have missed the opportunity to visit the island nation. It is important for us to get the word out that our tours are not changing and that we are here to help them realize their dream of exploring Cuba’s fascinating culture. We have departures scheduled through the end of 2018, and are continuing with all of them. We believe firmly in the power of people-to-people connections to effect change and we intend to do our part to connect Americans with the people of Cuba.”