An ominous U.S. State Department warning against visiting Cuba and a U.S.-mandated cutback in the consular officers who issue visas at the Cuban Embassy in Washington could put the chill on some U.S. travel to the island but not as much as might be expected.
One reason is that tour operators, airlines and cruise lines make bulk purchases of the tourist visas that many Americans need to travel to the island and have enough in hand to allow eligible U.S. travelers to visit Cuba for the foreseeable future. Cuban Americans who have up-to-date Cuban passports also can still travel.
“We generally buy 1,000 or 2,000 visas at a time from the Cuban consulate. There are a lot of visas out there,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuban Educational Travel, which arranges trips to Cuba.
After the United States ordered 15 Cuban diplomats at the Cuban Embassy in Washington to leave the country on Tuesday, only one Cuban employee — Consul General Alejandro Padrón Corral — was left in the consular section.
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The embassy issued a statement Friday saying that despite the “arbitrary and unwarranted decision” to expel its employees, its consular section would continue to offer “all service uninterruptedly.” But it apologized in advance for delays in processing paperwork and pinned the blame on the United States’ “unacceptable” decision.
U.S. travelers who only need tourist visas for people-to-people travel and some other eligible travel categories can generally acquire their visas at the airport or seaport prior to departure if not before from their travel providers. They don’t require any advance approval by the Cuban government.
But those who need specialized visas, such as journalists, business executives with official agendas, those doing professional research, and students enrolled in semester-long academic programs in Cuba, may have to await longer for their visas to be approved.
Cuban Americans born in Cuba who want to travel also must have a current Cuban passport. It needs to be renewed every four years and must be revalidated every two years. Those requiring passports and renewals and other paperwork from the Cuban consulate also may face delays.
“We spoke with the Cuban consul ... and he told us everything will be the same but things are going to be slower,” said Yanni Toledo, travel service manager at Airline Brokers, which sells airline tickets and other Cuba travel services. Toledo said she just bought 500 more visas from the consulate at a cost of $50 each.
Airline Brokers sells the visas for $75 each. Some other travel providers offer them at cost or charge up to $100.
The expulsions from the Cuban Embassy followed a U.S. decision to withdraw 60 percent of the personnel at its embassy in Havana because it said Cuba was unable to ensure the safety of its diplomats on the island.
Twenty-two embassy employees have suffered from various health problems, including hearing loss, dizziness and cognitive issues, over the past several months. The injuries, the United States says, resulted from attacks of an unknown nature. While it doesn’t hold Cuba responsible for the attacks, it says Havana is responsible for ensuring the safety of its diplomats while they are in Cuba.
“It’s a very strange rabbit hole we’ve gone down,” said Pedro Freyre, who is chairman of the international practice at the Akerman law firm. “This is one of the must puzzling things I’ve ever come up against as long as I’ve been involved with Cuba.”
Freyre often travels to Cuba with clients from cruise lines and other companies that do or are interested in doing business in Cuba. While he said business visas may be delayed because of the cutbacks in personnel at the embassy, “clients who are committed to Cuba are still committed to Cuba. They are playing the long view. They believe this is a serious situation but they hope it can be resolved.”
He said there also may be ways for Cubans to get around the potential processing delays for business visas. Sometimes, Freyre said, he and his clients are asked to travel on a visa volante (flying visa) that is issued in Havana and is waiting at the airport upon their arrival. To get to Cuba in that case, he travels on his Cuban passport and clients travel on tourist visas until they pick up the proper volante visa at the airport.
Even though there are no confirmed reports thus far of any private U.S. visitors having been affected by the mysterious health incidents, the State Department took the unusual step of issuing a travel warning against visiting Cuba saying: “We believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba. Attacks have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.”
The State Department said Friday it had received a handful of reports from recent U.S. travelers to Cuba who said they had experienced symptoms similar to those listed in the travel warning but it couldn’t confirm them. “We cannot verify the claims and continue to urge American citizens to review our travel warning,” a State Department spokesperson said.
The travel warning has created plenty of confusion and resulted in some cancellations of planned trips to Cuba, but RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel), an association of 150 travel agencies, tour operators and others who provide travel services to Cuba, says the warning is unjustified and its members are continuing to organize trips to Cuba.
“This is just not a question of travelers’ safety,” said Bob Guild, co-coordinator of RESPECT and vice president of Marazul Charters, which organizes group tours and individual travel to Cuba. He said so far this year there have been 500,000 U.S. visitors to Cuba, including Cuban Americans. “None of them, to the best of my knowledge, has experienced similar health issues. The State Department warning is a political warning, not a health warning.”
He said no other country has issued such a travel warning for Cuba either.
But Guild said that Marazul has experienced some group and individual cancellations. “It hasn’t been that many yet, but it will depend on how this plays out,” he said.
“There is a huge confusion in the American market now,” said Michael Goren, chief executive of BeyondCruises by Group IST. Its customers fly to Havana or Cienfuegos and then take mega yacht tours around the island. Even though he said there is no reason for Americans to stop traveling to Cuba, the company might have to cancel two or three of the four yachts it was planning to operate in Cuba. “There are no bookings; that market is freezing,” Goren said.
There are no bookings; that market is freezing.
Michael Goren, Group IST
“A lot of Americans are first-time travelers to Cuba and they’re a bit apprehensive to begin with, and some of them have tended to panic over the travel warning,” said Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services.
He said CTS has been getting a lot of calls from potential travelers concerned about their safety. The company tries to reassure them that they can continue to travel to Cuba, Zuccato said. A travel warning is a “very serious thing,” he said, but if the intent is to protect American travelers, “why not tell us the names of the hotels [where the State Department said some of the attacks occurred] so we can take proper safeguards for our customers?”
The Miami Herald requested the names of the hotels, but the State Department didn’t provide them.
Carnival Corp. also is getting inquiries about its Cuban itineraries — but it’s more along the lines of whether their Cuba cruises are going to go out as planned and whether their visas will be accepted for their arrival and return, said Roger Frizzell, a Carnival Corp. spokesman. All Cuba cruises will continue as planned, he said.
Carnival sent this message to cruisers: “Please be advised that your visa for travel to Cuba is valid, and there are no issues with your return to the U.S. The State Department advisory does not prohibit Americans from traveling to Cuba.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi