What Trump’s new Cuba policy means for travelers to the island

Tourists walk next to a house with a private room for rent in Havana, on February 10, 2017. Under new travel rules, U.S. visitors won’t be able to stay at hotels operated by the Cuban military.
Tourists walk next to a house with a private room for rent in Havana, on February 10, 2017. Under new travel rules, U.S. visitors won’t be able to stay at hotels operated by the Cuban military. AFP/Getty Images

Since President Donald Trump announced his new Cuba policy, Tom Popper’s phone has been ringing off the hook.

Callers have questions, lots of questions, about how they can travel to Cuba as individuals, what people-to-people tours are and how they can visit Cuba.

Others are more emphatic, said Popper, president of InsightCuba, which takes groups to Cuba on tours that range from exploration of colonial cities to itineraries centered on jazz in Havana.

“They say they have been interested in traveling to Cuba and they want to book right now,” he said.

Trump made a seemingly small change in who can travel to the island — individuals may no longer plan their own people-to-people itineraries and will have to make these educational trips as part of groups in the future — but those in the Cuba travel business fear it could be a precursor to a much more restrictive policy on U.S. travel to the island.

A new prohibition on doing business with Cuba’s military, which controls a broad swath of the economy, also could have a big impact on U.S. travelers. Military holdings include Gaviota hotels and villas, tour companies that offer everything from Jeep safaris to night tours of Havana, rental car agencies, gas stations, marinas, convenience stores, a tourist bus fleet, a small airline, attractions ranging from beer gardens to discos, and just about every state hotel, restaurant and shop in Old Havana through its Habaguanex brand.

Tourists walk near the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski in Havana. The Swiss hotel company Kempinski operates the hotel under a contract with the Gaviota group, which is owned by the Cuban military. Rules are being written that would bar American travelers and companies from any direct transactions with the Cuban military. YAMIL LAGE AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration says the State Department has been charged with coming up with a list of prohibited entities “with which direct transactions generally will not be permitted.”

Tour operations

But until new regulations are written (a process that Trump has mandated must begin by mid-July) and the list comes out, tour operators aren’t exactly sure how their operations night be affected in the future.

“What concerns me the most is there is so much we don’t know,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Travel, which offers group tours to the island.

Marazul has requested hotel bookings through 2019 for its groups and some of those blocks of rooms are at Gaviota hotels, Guild said. Although New Jersey-based Marazul doesn’t learn how much the hotel rooms will cost until much closer to travel dates, Guild said Marazul does have confirmations from Cuban tour companies that the blocks of rooms it requested will be available.

Guidance put out by Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control would seem to indicate that even the reservations at Gaviota hotels might be permitted — at least for a time. Dealings with the Cuban military, it said, are permitted as long as “those commercial engagements were in place prior to the issuance of the forthcoming regulations.”

“That could mean we’re OK,” Guild said. “We have already requested rooms for dozens and dozens of groups through 2019.”

By the same token, if individual travelers who planned to travel under the people-to-people designation booked at least one travel-related transaction — airline tickets or reserving an accommodation — prior to Trump’s June 16 announcement of his new Cuba policy, they may still travel under that category even if their trip comes after the date when the new regulations are issued.

Meanwhile, Obama-administration travel rules remain in effect until the new regulations come out. That means individual travelers who plan to visit Cuba under the people-to-people designation can still book a trip. But unless they plan to travel in the very near future, it’s a gamble.

If an individual traveler plans a people-to-people trip for late September, for example, and the new regulations come out before then, the traveler will be out of luck.

Cuban visitors and their guide walk along a street in Havana on June 15, 2017. That was the day before President Donald Trump announced a new policy that will bar individual people-to-people travel to Cuba. YAMIL LAGE AFP/Getty Images

Individual travel

Individual trips to Cuba will still be allowed. But travelers must make sure they fit into one of 11 other categories of permissible travel, such as a visit to relatives or in support of the Cuban people, a humanitarian trip or to take part in a sports competition or cultural event.

Some travel organizations say they plan to help individual travelers find opportunities to travel under the 11 other categories.

ViaHero, which operates in Cuba, Iceland and Japan, is a travel planning service. For a flat $25 a day, it connects U.S. travelers to local travel partners in Cuba who help them plan their trips, make reservations for them, and offer recommendations ranging from where to find the best cup of coffee in Camagüey to locating vegetarian restaurants in Havana.

Since the company was founded in 2015, it has helped small groups and individuals plan trips that have mostly been in the people-to-people category.

“We’ll have to pivot our business in Cuba a little bit and make sure we fit one of the other 11 categories,” said Greg Buzulencia, the chief executive and co-founder of ViaHero. “But the new regulations will still allow us to be successful and stay in business in Cuba. Whatever travelers are interested in, we can find ways to connect them with Cubans.”

“Most of our clients are staying at casas particulares [privately owned lodging] and eating at private local restaurants,” he said, “but we’ll need to be more careful to make sure we’re avoiding military-owned businesses.”

“I don’t think the new policy will have much impact on group travel,” said InsightCuba’s Popper. Among the many hotels the company has used for its groups are two Gaviota hotels — the Meliá Santiago de Cuba and the Meliá Cayo Santa María.

InsightCuba will make adjustments if necessary under the new regulations, said Popper. “A lot of the wholly owned Gaviota hotels are in the keys and are resort hotels. Most tour operators don’t stay there because they haven’t been destinations for people-to-people tours.”

Tour operators can still select other Cuban hotel brands not affiliated with the military — Cubanacan and GranCaribe, for example — and it’s possible Cuba could rebrand and assign some tourism-related companies now under the umbrella of GAESA, the military’s huge conglomerate, to the Ministry of Tourism or other state entities.

A couple of years ago at Cuba’s International Tourism Fair, known as FIT Cuba, the government announced it was forming Viajes Cuba, an entity that would bring together all the Cuban tour companies that work with American visitors.

But at this point, the plan doesn’t appear to have gone very far. “So far we’re still working with the same Cuban tour companies as always,” Guild said.

Travel audits expected

Meanwhile, the memorandum to strengthen U.S. policy toward Cuba that Trump recently signed in Miami says the Secretary of the Treasury will regularly audit travel to Cuba to make sure travelers are complying with regulations and aren’t traveling to Cuba for tourism.

There’s also another new twist: Treasury’s inspector general is required to provide a report to the president on how audit requirements are being implemented within 180 days of the new regulations going into effect. After that, an annual report is required.

Even under the Obama administration, travelers were required to maintain records of their Cuban travel transactions for five years. The requirement remains under Trump’s policy but lawyers and those in the travel industry say they expect much more scrutiny and most likely spot checks at airports of returning Cuban travelers.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, travel to Cuba was highly restricted and fines were assessed against travelers who violated travel regulations. The usual drill was that passengers pulled aside for additional questioning later received a letter from the Office of Foreign Assets Control asking for full details of their Cuba trip, including all receipts, said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba law.

But tour operators say they are prepared for additional scrutiny. “We have a warehouse full of files,” Guild said.

“As part of our service we keep all passengers records on file for five years,” Popper said. “We always have the paperwork ready to provide to our guests, and we’re prepared to provide them with an audit-ready package if necessary.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi