Americans will still be able to travel to Cuba, but rules will be stricter

What Trump's Cuba policy change means for U.S. travelers

There are big changes ahead for Americans hoping to travel to Cuba. President Trump overhauled one of President Obama's signature foreign policy accomplishments today.
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There are big changes ahead for Americans hoping to travel to Cuba. President Trump overhauled one of President Obama's signature foreign policy accomplishments today.

The good news for Americans who want to travel to Cuba is they still can, but a draft of President Donald Trump’s presidential policy directive indicates they shouldn’t even think of sneaking away for a day on a Cuban beach.

And they better keep detailed information on their travels. The draft emphasizes that travelers must keep a full record of every transaction they make in Cuba and hold on to it for five years.

The major change from the Obama era in Trump’s Cuba policy draft: U.S. travelers making educational people-to-people trips can no longer go to the island on their own but must travel with groups accompanied by a company representative.

A number of travel companies, airlines and cruise lines were reluctant to comment on the draft details, preferring to wait until Friday when Trump officially releases his new presidential directive on Cuba in Miami. There are also no regulations accompanying the presidential policy directive. Those are expected within 90 days.

Hundreds of yachts that have been sailing from the United States to Cuba since September 2015, when the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued a new set of regulations approved by the former Obama administration that opened the door to passenger t

But some are concerned that the new policy will dampen enthusiasm for Cuban travel.

“Additional prohibitions and oversight on travel will only confuse Americans and dissuade them from visiting Cuba, causing significant economic hardship to Cuban entrepreneurs and average Cuban families, as well as Americans working in the hospitality sector,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuban Educational Travel, which arranges group travel to the island.

Pedro Freyre, a Miami lawyer for cruise lines and other businesses that have deals with Cuba, noted that it’s hard to determine the scope and precise nature of Trump’s new policy until the regulations are drafted.

“The devil is in the details. It will be critically important to engage U.S. regulators as they go forward with the drafting of the guidelines to ensure that these are not overly burdensome to U.S. business,” he said.

The devil is in the details. It will be critically important to engage U.S. regulators as they go forward with the drafting of the guidelines to ensure that these are not overly burdensome to U.S. business.

Pedro Freyre, Miami attorney

Because they haven’t been able to see a final draft and review the details of the new regulations, most travel companies declined to comment.

In general, the president is trying to navigate a delicate line between cracking down on money that goes directly to the Cuban military and not taking measures that would hurt Cuban citizens who have embraced private enterprise, opening restaurants, bed and breakfasts, boutique hotels, and other businesses that cater to the growing number of travelers to the island.

Since the United States eased restrictions on bringing back alcohol from the island for personal consumption, the Cuban rum industry is booming with bottles going for as much as a $1,000.

Visits by Cuban Americans and other U.S. travelers in 2016 reached 614,433, a 34 percent increase over 2015.

On one hand, the draft says the president wants to increase support of the Cuban people through expansion of internet service, free media, free enterprise, free association and lawful travel.

But on the other, it prohibits direct financial dealings with GAESA (Grupo de Administración Empresarial SA), which controls hotel brands such as Gaviota. Its portfolio in early 2017 included 64 hotels and villas with more than 27,000 rooms. It even runs discotheques and hunting preserves.

The Trump policy also allows family travel to Cuba to continue without restrictions and places no limits on remittances, according to the draft.

That’s good news for the Cuban community, said José “Pepe” Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation. “It wouldn’t make sense to put sanctions on the people,” he said.

But he thinks sanctioning the Cuban military is a step in the right direction. “One of the great problems we’re seeing is that most of the really valuable assets are now the property of the military or under management by the military,” Hernández said.

Under Obama, there were 12 categories of travel permitted, from humanitarian and religious trips to people-to-people tours and travel for athletic competitions. Travelers did not have to seek prior approval from the U.S. government, although tourist travel wasn’t permitted. Those travel categories will remain under the Trump policy directive, which also bars sun-and-beach vacations.

It’s estimated that businesses run by GAESA control more than 40 percent of the Cuban economy. GAESA’s holdings range from the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, gas stations, convenience stores, telecommunications companies, and a commercial airline to the Cuban Export-Import Corp. (CIMEX), a Cuban enterprise whose holdings include rental car agency Havanautos, free zones and container ships.

After the regulations are issued, travelers won’t be able to book hotel rooms at Gaviota hotels, which include the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, Havana’s newest luxury hotel. Some of Cuba’s best hotels are managed under operating contracts with foreign hotel operators.

A full ban on business with military enterprises would have meant cruise lines would not have been able to pay port fees, essentially cutting off budding cruise travel to Cuba from the United States. But the draft indicates that airport and seaport operations necessary for permissible travel, cargo and trade are exempt from the prohibition on dealing with military enterprises.

As recently as this week, Miami-based Victory Cruise Lines was approved to sail to Cuba, making it the 10th U.S. line to get the green light for Cuba. The luxury, all-inclusive line plans to sail to Havana, Maria la Gorda, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba on its 202-passenger ships.

Victory President and Chief Executive Bruce Nierenberg said the cruise line stands to win from the new regulations because all the shore excursions it offers will follow U.S. guidelines.

“As an all-inclusive product, including all the tours, the tour guides and arrangements on shore … we are perfectly positioned to be in full compliance with any regulations covering how our guests use the Cuban product,” Nierenberg said.

“While there has been a significant anxiety about this announcement from the administration and its potential impact on travel and tourism to Cuba, the actual adjustments being called for are constructive ways to get everyone’s attention and bring Cuba and the U.S. closer together in the long term,” he said.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Chabeli Herrera contributed to this story.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

What new Trump Cuba policy does and doesn’t do

1. Prohibits most U.S. business dealings with Cuban military enterprises.

2. Makes exceptions for business with Cuban airports and seaports, allowing permissible travel and trade to continue.

3. Airlines and cruise lines will continue to operate as they do now.

4. Retains current policies on family travel and remittances.

5. Emphasizes that travelers must retain records of all transactions they make in Cuba for five years.

6. Prohibits U.S. travelers from staying at hotels run by the Cuban military.

7. Regulations due within 90 days will clarify policy.

Source: Draft of presidential policy directive.

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