Yes, you can still travel to Cuba — but make sure you know the new rules

Tourist buses share the road along with vintage American cars and a horse drawn buggy in Havana, Cuba. Travel to Cuba is still legal for American travelers, but there are new rules.
Tourist buses share the road along with vintage American cars and a horse drawn buggy in Havana, Cuba. Travel to Cuba is still legal for American travelers, but there are new rules.

On the homepage of Cuba Travel Services, a company that makes travel arrangements to Cuba, a banner proclaims: “YES, American travel to Cuba is still legal!”

In the five months since President Donald Trump appeared in Miami and said he was reversing all of President Barack Obama’s Cuba policies — although he actually didn’t — a devastating hurricane raked Cuba’s north coast, and the U.S. State Department issued a warning against traveling to Cuba. Some people just scratched the island off their list as a potential destination.

“You put it all together and people were scared of Cuba,” said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, which provides group tours to Cuba. “Bookings were down; all the metrics were down since the president’s June 16 speech.”

Last week, long-awaited regulations implementing Trump’s new policy on Cuba travel and trade went into effect. Although the new policy imposes some additional restrictions, it has clarified the rules and is helping ease travelers’ doubts about what they can and cannot do.

Though some travel providers were fearful there would be surprises when the new rules were issued, they pretty much stick to the changes that the White House outlined last June.

“It’s clear [the Trump administration] doesn’t want to encourage travel to Cuba, but our reading is that while there’s been a shift toward more negative rhetoric, travel policies are largely consistent with the previous administration,” said Giancarlo Sopo, founder of the CubaOne Foundation, a Miami-based nonprofit that organizes free trips to the island for young Cuban Americans.

But there are some important changes, including a list of 180 prohibited companies, hotels and stores controlled by the Cuban military. No American citizen, firm, greencard holder or person otherwise under U.S. jurisdiction is allowed to carry out any direct financial transaction with any entity on the list.

“The announcements do not bring much more news than the previous announcement — other than to be very specific about which businesses are now off limits. However, there are still many accommodations, restaurants, bars and shops available to U.S. travelers,” said Charel van Darn, the chief managing officer of Cuba Travel Network.

President Donald Trump powered into East Little Havana and announced a sweeping change in relations intended to rebuke his predecessor’s opening toward the island.

That includes hotels run by the Ministry of Tourism and private homes and boutique hotels.

Here’s the bottom line on what Americans need to know about traveling to Cuba:

▪  U.S. travelers, airlines and cruise lines can continue to legally visit Cuba. Tour operators can continue to run trips and travelers can still bring home rum and cigars for personal consumption.

Carnival Paradise anchors in Havana harbor. Under new Trump administration rules, cruise ships can still call at Cuban ports. Carnival Cruise Line courtesy

There are, however, a few new restrictions on which hotels and other establishments they can patronize, and new rules that affect three of the 12 permissible travel categories for Cuba.

▪  Americans may no longer carry out direct transactions with 180 companies, including 83 hotels, that are controlled by Cuba’s military.

Many of the hotels on the list are in the cays off Cuba’s north coast and are resorts that Americans generally don’t frequent anyway because the United States bars trips whose only purpose is tourism.

What might impact travelers more is that many hotels and some stores in the historic Old Havana neighborhood are on the prohibited list. That’s because they are Habaguanex establishments. The Habaguanex tourism brand was transferred to the military last year. The other military hotel brand is Gaviota, but not all Gaviota hotels are on the list.

Cuba Irma 08 EKM
A worker at the new five-star hotel, Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, in Old Havana, sweeps the rooftop pool deck following a heavy downpour. The Kempinski is one of the Cuban hotels now off-limits for U.S. travelers. Emily Michot

Popper said only two hotels in Baracoa and Cayo Santa Maria that InsightCuba used are on the restricted list and the company has shifted upcoming trips to non-military hotels in the vicinity.

The State Department emphasizes the restricted list will be updated. That means every time you travel to Cuba, you should check the list in advance.

U.S. travelers also may not book any excursions through Gaviota Tours or the Crucero del Sol agency. Nine Habaguanex stores in Old Havana that sell everything from toy soldiers to painted fans also are on the list as are Coral Negro jewelry stores, which are often located in hotels. Also off limits: Manzana de Gomez, the only really fancy shopping mall in Havana, and La Maison, which holds fashion shows and sells clothing, jewelry and accessories.

Bring plenty of batteries and other supplies for your camera because all PhotoService shops fall under the Gaviota umbrella and are on the restricted list.

Stretches of the famed Malecón boulevard are still closed for repairs and seaside businesses show the scars of 30-foot waves that crashed through the seawall during Hurricane Irma. But tourists have returned to the capital, even as areas hit hard

Caney and Varadero rums, as well as several brands of soft drinks, are also on the restricted list, but the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which enforces economic sanctions, has clarified that if you buy these beverages from a third party — a street vendor or at a bar, for example — that’s fine. What is prohibited is purchasing these brands directly from the manufacturer.

Cuba recently said it would welcome U.S. boaters, including Cuban Americans, at Marina Hemingway just outside Havana and at Marina Gaviota Varadero. But the Varadero marina is on the restricted list as are Gaviota marinas in Cabo de San Antonio, Cayo Coco, Cayos de Villa Clara, and the Puerto Vita marina in Holguín.

▪  The new rules don’t affect travel by Cuban Americans, though they also are barred from direct financial transactions with entities on the restricted list. They can still travel to the island as they did under Obama administration rules. Cuba, however, recently changed a few of its own rules, including no longer requiring a habilitación (qualification) stamp for Cuban Americans traveling to the island with Cuban passports.

▪  The regulations no longer allow individual travel to Cuba under the people-to-people category. Now those who want to travel under this category, which is designed to encourage meaningful contacts between Cubans and Americans, must be part of an organized group and a representative from the organizer must accompany them.

There’s an exception, however. If you booked at least one part of a future trip — a flight or hotel — before June 16, you can still travel under the people-to-people category as an individual.

Those traveling to take part in non-academic educational trips also must now travel in groups and be accompanied by a representative of the sponsoring organization.

▪  Individuals can still travel to Cuba but they must qualify under other categories of U.S.-permitted travel such as travel for religious or humanitarian purposes, travel by journalists or family visits.

The new rules also tweak a category of travel called “support for the Cuban people.” Individual travel is allowed in this category. But such travelers “must maintain a full-time schedule of education exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

What’s that mean for the average traveler?

Staying at a private bed and breakfast, eating at private restaurants and buying goods and services from those who are self-employed are all activities that count as “support for the Cuban people.” But the regulations require something more, such as helping with a civil society program or having a series of conversations with private entrepreneurs.

Niuris Higueras Martinez gives her daughter, Ysabella Cabeiro Higueras, a big hug at Higueras’ private Havana restaurant Atelier. Emily Michot

CubaOne recently organized a humanitarian trip where travelers worked with local churches to distribute hurricane aid, and it is planning three themed trips next year that will focus on religion, the self-employed sector and diplomacy and U.S.-Cuba relations. All the trips will qualify under support for the Cuban people, Sopo said.

Those traveling under this category are required to maintain full-time itineraries so one exchange with a private entrepreneur broken up by hours at a hotel pool wouldn’t qualify, according to lawyers. “What I tell people is you don’t have to cancel your plans, but you need to build an itinerary so you’re not a recluse and you’re out engaging with Cubans,” Sopo said.

▪  Travelers also are supposed to keep records of their travels and qualifying activities for five years, and have them available if questions arise. For those traveling with groups, the organizer is tasked with keeping such records.

▪  The U.S. State Department issued a travel warning on Sept. 29 advising U.S. citizens against travel to Cuba, saying embassy personnel had been targeted in attacks that have taken place at diplomatic residences and “hotels frequented by U.S. citizens.” These so-called acoustic incidents, of unknown origin, have affected the health of 24 diplomats whose symptoms range from hearing loss, headaches and memory problems to mild concussions, ringing in the ears and sleep disorders.

The travel warning is not mandatory, and the incidents specifically affecting diplomats have been reported at only two hotels in Havana — the Hotel Nacional and the Capri. Travelers can choose to stay in them or not.

But InSight Cuba’s Popper said the travel warning “has had a very big dampening effect in the marketplace. So many people took it to mean that they could no longer travel to Cuba.”

In response to the acoustic incidents, the United States withdrew 60 percent of its personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the Cuban Embassy in Washington. There is only one consular officer left at the Cuban Embassy, which means certain categories of travel that require special visas may take far longer to process.

The Associated Press has obtained a recording of what some U.S. embassy workers heard in Havana as they were attacked by what investigators initially believed was a sonic weapon.

People traveling under the people-to-people and support for the Cuban people categories can travel using tourist visas and they can get them at the airport or from travel providers.

U.S. travel to the island slowed during September, when Irma struck, and in October, but now with the rules clearer, Popper said interest is picking up. “We had our best week in months [after the regulations came out on Nov. 9],” he said. “Bookings, web traffic and requests for brochures were all up.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

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