American visitors aren’t flying in droves to Cuba now. Tour operators: Please come back

Tourists visit the cathedral square as a cat basks under the sun in Havana. While the U.S. prohibits tourism to Cuba, Americans can travel here for specially designated purposes like religious activity or the vaguely defined category of people-to-people cultural interaction.
Tourists visit the cathedral square as a cat basks under the sun in Havana. While the U.S. prohibits tourism to Cuba, Americans can travel here for specially designated purposes like religious activity or the vaguely defined category of people-to-people cultural interaction. AP

When Tom Popper flew to Havana over the weekend, his flight from New York's JFK airport was only 27 percent full. For the president of InsightCuba, a Cuba tour operator, that was a sure sign that travel to the island is in trouble this winter.

Even though Cuba reported a record of almost 4.7 million international visitors, including nearly 620,000 Americans in 2017, in the last few months U.S. travel to the island has cooled. [Cuban-American travel is excluded from those totals].

After the Obama administration made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, releasing decades of pent-up demand, it was hard to find an empty hotel room in Havana.

But in the past six months, the Cuba travel industry has been hit by a triple whammy of adverse events: U.S warnings and advisories against traveling to Cuba stemming from mysterious health episodes affecting diplomats, a Category 5 hurricane that battered tourism facilities, and confusing statements and restrictions from the Trump administration on travel to the island.

Every time a new headline pops up, it takes a toll, Popper said. The phones at his company go silent.

So this week, InsightCuba and a cross-section of those involved in Cuba travel organized an outing in Havana with the singular purpose of showing that it is safe and legal to travel to Cuba.

Despite the new rules under Trump, it's not that complicated to visit Cuba either, said Popper, who organized the CubaMediaDay on Monday in Havana.

Melia, the Spanish hotel company, donated space at its Melia Cohiba hotel, for the Havana meeting. It operates 27 hotels in Cuba with 12,570 rooms. By 2020, it hopes to be running 38 hotels on the island with 15,548 rooms.

During December and January, American guests at the Melia Cohiba decreased 25 percent but they still represented the top market at the hotel, said Francisco Camps, deputy director of Melia Cuba.

“We're here today to change course,” said Terry Dale, president and chief executive of the U.S. Tour Operators Association. While Cuba won accolades as top emerging market and hottest market in 2015 and 2016, Dale said Cuba wasn't on either list in 2017 and it was viewed as the destination most at risk.

While most international destinations are the subject of travel advisories because of crime waves, terrorism or conditions of war, Cuba has always been considered a relatively safe destination. At the Madrid International Tourism Fair this month, Cuba received an excellence award for the “safest country in the world.”

But the latest Department of State advisory, issued on Jan. 10, urges U.S. travelers to “reconsider travel to Cuba due to health attacks directed at U.S. Embassy Havana employees.”

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Twenty-four employees have suffered symptoms ranging from hearing loss, dizziness and fatigue to headaches, cognitive issues and visual problems. Because the United States said Cuba failed to protect its diplomats while they were on the island, all but a skeletal staff has been withdrawn from the embassy in Havana and the U.S. expelled 17 diplomats from the Cuban embassy in Washington.

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.

Nineteen U.S. travelers to Cuba also have reported similar symptoms to the State department, but State wouldn't confirm where the incidents took place or whether U.S. investigators had confirmed them.

Some of the diplomats reported hearing a shrill buzzing sound, but not all. What's caused the symptoms is still unknown. Because “we are unable to identify the source of the attacks (at diplomatic residences and the Hotel Nacional and Capri hotel in Cuba), we believe U.S. citizens also may be at risk,” the advisory said.

Cuban tourism officials also joined the Havana media day, distributing guidebooks and promotional materials with the slogan “la vives, la amas” (you live it, you love it), and took American journalists on a tour of Old Havana and Central Havana.

To allay fears that travelers will find hurricane-battered hotels unable to receive guests, Jose Bisbe York, president of Viajes Cuba, a tourism enterprise within the Ministry of Tourism, said repairs had been completed on 40,000 hotel rooms and all major tourism facilities were back on line by Nov. 1.

Cojímar, Cuba, a small fishing village made famous by Hemingway is busy with recovery efforts after Irma.

“We not only repaired but fully renovated these hotels,” he said, adding that international visitor arrivals dipped 10 percent in December and were down 7-8 percent so far this month.

“Cuba is one of the safest destinations all over the world,” said Bisbe. Nearly 40 percent of Cuba travelers are repeaters, 29 percent of travelers come with their families and 96 percent of travelers say they would recommend Cuba as a destination, he said.

“You wouldn't recommend a destination if there is some kind of risk,” Bisbe said. “We are a very, very safe country.”

Marc Gaudet, a tourist from Ottawa who had been sitting in a cafe, was on his ninth trip to Cuba since 2007. “It's like every city in the world,” he said of Havana. “There are good places and there are some bad places. But I would say this is about the safest I've seen Havana in the past 10 years.”

He'd heard about the health incidents, which also involved several Canadian diplomats, but was skeptical. “Who in the world would want to attack Canadian diplomats?” he asked. Canada continues to investigate but hasn't issued a travel advisory for Cuba.

“I think someone is trying to spoil the soup,” Gaudet said.

Visitors dance as musicians play at a bar in Havana. The number of American travelers rose to 619,000, more than six times the pre-Obama level. But amid the boom, an 18 percent increase over 2016, owners of private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts are reporting a sharp drop-off. Ramon Espinosa AP

None of the news has scared away Marie Kahn, a retiree from San Francisco, either.

She just figured she needed to get to Cuba in a hurry. “I wanted to come now because I fear that maybe in a year or two it will no longer be possible,” said Kahn who had been in Cuba for the past 10 days and paused as her tour group crossed Old Havana's Plaza de Armas.

“We began in Holguín and then went east to Guantánamo and Santiago and then rural areas between there and here, so we're all agog at how urbanized Havana is. It's really a beautiful city. I would recommend it,” she said.

The landmark 439-room Hotel Nacional, which has hosted world leaders, celebrities and the 1946 meeting of American mafia families who came together to divvy up business in Havana, also was on the media day itinerary.

Now it also has the infamy of being one of the hotels where the United States says some of the attacks on diplomats occurred.

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For the past five years, the main market at the hotel, which sits on a high bluff overlooking the sea, has been Americans. Of the 65,000 travelers who slept at the hotel last year, more than 50 percent were Americans, said Antonio Martínez, the general manager.

There were some cancellations and bookings were down last month, he said, but the hotel still hasn't closed the books on the last season.

Martínez said bookings may be down around 20 percent, but he doesn't know whether to attribute the drop to the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, being named by the United States in connection with the health incidents, or other factors.

Asked what he thought when he first heard the United States had named the hotel as the scene of some of the “attacks,” he responded: “When you're 70 years old like I am, nothing.” With 20 years at the Nacional, he said he's pretty much seen and heard it all.

“Look around. We still have American guests here,” said Martínez. “Please send all of your friends here and they will be well taken care of.”

Also speaking at the meeting were airline and cruise line representatives.

Although it has downsized planes on some routes and flew its last flight to Cienfuegos on Jan. 8, American Airlines remains “committed to the market,” said Martha Pantin, AA's senior manager for corporate communications in Miami.

American still flies 63 flights a week to five Cuban cities and has applied to the Department of Transportation for 17 additional weekly flight frequencies from Miami to Havana, said Pantin,

Cruise ships continue to arrive, too. On Monday, two were in port in Havana as a third sailed out to sea.

When Trump announced in Miami in June that he was shifting toward a new Cuba policy, he said he was reversing all of President Barack Obama's Cuba policies.

He didn't, but that led to more confusion on the part of American travelers. The rhetoric “created a lot of misunderstanding,” said Lindsey Frank, a lawyer who spoke at the event.

But the president did make some important changes: requiring all people-to-people trips to be made as part of groups and listing 180 Cuban hotels, tour companies and stores controlled by the Cuban military as off limits for American travelers.

No American citizen, firm, green-card holder or person otherwise under U.S. jurisdiction is allowed to carry out any direct financial transaction with any entity on the list.

However, Americans still can travel as individuals under other categories of permissible travel to Cuba such as support for the Cuban people and family visits. Many hotels aren't on the list nor are private bed and breakfasts. But travel whose sole purpose is tourism remains prohibited.

Americans can still book at the restricted hotels as long as they book through a Cuban travel agency (Havanatur, San Cristobal, Amistur) not on the list or a third-country agency, said Frank. What is prohibited is direct transactions with entities on the list.

Americans are required to keep detailed records of their Cuba travels, including receipts, for five years, and the administration has suggested there could be spot checks for compliance when Americans arrive back home. But so far that doesn't seem to have happened.

“I'm not aware of any stepped-up enforcement, stepped up budget, or stepped-up personnel for enforcement at OFAC (the Office of Foreign Assets Control),” said Frank.

“Cuba,” he said, “very much does remain a legal destination for U.S. travelers — even under current OFAC regulations.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi