The Cuban visa business: murky but profitable

Passengers arrive in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on the inaugural flight of American Airlines from Miami to Cuba, on Wednesday, September 7, 2016.
Passengers arrive in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on the inaugural flight of American Airlines from Miami to Cuba, on Wednesday, September 7, 2016. AP

Despite the recent start of regular commercial flights to Cuba by U.S. airlines and a record number of passengers, the process of traveling to the island can be murky and confusing to U.S. visitors.

After decades of charter flights, the U.S. commercial flights are slowly educating visitors about the many issues involved, including how to meet one of the 12 travel categories established by the U.S. Treasury Department, whether to use cash or credit cards, stay in hotels or private homes, and exchange dollars for pesos.

That might all change when President Donald Trump announces his new policies on Cuba, expected Friday in Miami.

Regardless of any changes, however, within the labyrinth of details about travel to Cuba there is one document that remains largely unexplained: the Cuban entry permit, known as a visa or tourist card, which all non-Cuban visitors are required to buy.

The visa is literally a card on which visitors write their names and other personal information. It is valid for only one entry, costs $50 if bought from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, and an extra $20 if purchased by mail.

But the card is also sold at varying prices by the dozens of travel agencies and airlines that handle tickets to Cuba.

The Cuban entry permits are totally separate from the U.S. government requirement that passengers to Cuba fill out a questionnaire and check off one of the 12 allowed categories for travel to the island, such as educational or religious.

Only two of the airlines sell them to their clients at the $50 face price. Others use independent providers, who can charge up to $100.

Cuban Americans who have U.S.-born children also must obtain Cuban visas.

Tampa resident Elaine Martínez, 34, said the Cuban visas are so expensive “it’s an abuse.”

When Martínez visited her family on the island last year, she used her Cuban passport but paid $80 to a Tampa travel agency for a visa for her 2-year-old daughter, who was born in the United States.

She flew on JetBlue and could have bought the girl’s visa at the departure airport for $50, “but I was afraid there would be complications,” Martínez said.

Which airlines provide the tourist card at what price

Delta and JetBlue are the only airlines that sell the tourist cards at cost and directly to their clients, either online or at the departure airport before boarding.

American Airlines uses Cuba Travel Services (CTS), a California company that ran charter flights to the island before the commercial flights started. It charges AA clients $85 online and $100 at the airport in Miami.

After 55 years, American Airlines begins scheduled commercial service between Miami and Cuban cities of Cienfuegos and Holguín.

The extra is a “convenience fee,” said an American Airlines spokesperson.

CTS said it processes the visa requests for its own clients through the Cuban Embassy in Washington.

“Travel Visas are processed and made available to authorized travelers for cost plus processing and shipping fees. For direct sales, the cost is $50 plus a $35 processing fee. Shipping cost varies depending on the service they request,” said CTS general manager Michael Zuccato.

“Questions regarding the visa process for each airline should be addressed to the airlines directly for comment,” Zuccato said.

It remains unclear whether CTS or American Airlines imposed the convenience fee charged at MIA to AA clients.

Other airlines also use CTS to handle their Cuban visas, yet their prices vary.

CTS handles the online visa requests for Southwest clients for $50, and the airline hands them to the clients at the departure airport. Alaska Airlines passengers pay $85 for the same procedure.

United also uses CTS and charges $75 for visas delivered at the airport. “A Cuban entry permit costs $50 USD per person and is not included in the price of your airline ticket”, United’s website explains. “An additional $25 USD service charge will also be collected per person by Cuba Travel Services (CTS), which administers the distribution of the entry permits.”

CTS did not explain why it offers different prices depending on the airline.

On Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to initiate commercial flights with Cuba, kicking off with a flight from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Santa Clara, Cuba, in more than 50 years.

“The tourist card should be the same price for everyone, whether an individual or group,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “Having different pricing shows a lack of interest in transparency, and the bilateral commercial relationship between the United States and the Republic of Cuba should be transparent.”

“United States-based companies should reject variances and require one standard,” he said.

How the airlines obtain the Cuban visas

Airlines and travel agencies that have an agreement with the Cuban Embassy can buy the tourist cards in bulk.

The embassy’s website includes a list of the dozens of travel agencies that handle consular services, such as visas and passports.

Some airlines, like Alaska Airlines, say they are not travel agencies. “We refer our clients to our partner, Cuba Travel Services, which specializes on travel to Cuba, or they can obtain the necessary documents on their own,” said an airline spokesperson.

Jose “Pepe” Zapata, Delta Airlines general manager for Central America and the Caribbean, said his company buys the visas from the Cuban Embassy in Washington. “We have an agreement with them,” he said. “We make an estimate of how many visas we need for, let’s say, one or or two months, and we get supplies as we go along.”

The Cuban Embassy “will sell the visas to any airline,” Zapata added.

The embassy did not respond to el Nuevo Herald’s questions for this report.

Cruise companies also offer visas to their clients. Carnival Cruise Line provides them for $75, said Jennifer de la Cruz, vice president for communications. They are handed to the passengers before they board.

Follow Abel Fernández on Twitter @abelfglez