U.S. softens its Cuba travel advisory, still advises caution

Nearly a year since the U.S. State Department advised Americans not to travel to Cuba, it has downgraded its travel advisory for the island to a Level 2, a recommendation that simply advises exercising more caution when visiting Cuba.

In the wake of unexplained health incidents that caused a variety of symptoms among diplomatic personnel stationed in Havana, the United States withdrew two-thirds of its diplomatic staff last September and recommended that Americans not travel to the island. In January, the advisory was softened somewhat to a Level 3 that advised reconsidering travel to the island.

“We are pleased that the State Department has made this common-sense decision,” said Martha Honey, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), a coalition of U.S. tour operators and organizations. “Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world, and people-to-people exchanges, which began to flourish under the Obama administration, ground almost to a halt when the travel restrictions were imposed last year.”

All the health incidents, which the State Department refers to as attacks, took place in diplomatic residences, including a long-term rental at the Atlantic, or in three rooms at two Cuban hotels, the Nacional and Capri. Sometimes the onset of symptoms, which included hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, visual problems, ringing in the ears and cognitive problems, was accompanied by a high-pitched sound, but not in all cases.

What caused the diplomats’ symptoms is still a mystery, and both the United States and Cuba continue to investigate.

The State Department said there have been 26 confirmed cases among diplomats posted in Cuba. The drawdown continues at the U.S. Embassy, which at the beginning of August was staffed with only 14 diplomats whose tours of duty have been reduced from two years to one year. Family members also are no longer allowed to accompany diplomats to the Havana post.

But the State Department decided that the risk level is now lower for ordinary U.S. travelers.

“The Department conducted a comprehensive risk assessment for U.S. private citizen travelers in Cuba and decided that a Level 2 travel alert was appropriate,” said Orna Blum, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. “The health attacks appear to be directed at U.S. government personnel and occur mainly in the residences of embassy staff.”

The improved rating came as part of a mandatory review of the travel advisory for Cuba. The last evaluation was on March 2.

While the United States has said it holds Cuba responsible for not protecting its diplomats while they were in Cuban territory, it has stopped short of blaming Cuba for the incidents.

“We still don’t know the cause or source of the attacks,” Blum said.

The heightened travel advisories, confusion about U.S. travel regulations for Cuba and a hurricane last September that raked Cuba’s north coast have all taken a toll on travel to the island from the United States in the past year.

During the first half of the year, 2.5 million international visitors arrived in Cuba, which had been experiencing large year-over-year gains since the Obama administration rapprochement with Cuba. That represented an overall decline of 5.67 percent or 150,768 fewer travelers, during the first six months of the year.

But the drop in U.S. visitors was much more dramatic. Arrivals from the United States fell by 23.6 percent to 266,455, according to an analysis by Cuban economist José Luis Perelló. Those figures don’t include visits by the Cuban diaspora, which the Cuban government counts in a separate category.

A CREST survey conducted early this year found that 84 percent of U.S. tour operators who were contacted said the travel advisory was the main reason that U.S. travel to the island had dropped.

Given the performance in the first six months of the year, Emilio Morales, of the Havana Consulting Group, said it is unlikely that Cuba will reach the government’s goal of 5 million international arrivals in 2018 because more tourists tend to arrive during the first half of the year.

But the change in Cuba’s travel advisory status could perk up interest from U.S. visitors.

“It is a breath of fresh air in a highly politicized process of confusion, anxiety and speculation which led to an excessive measure by the State Department,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel.

He said the initial decision to elevate the Cuban travel advisory was politically motivated and that now the United States is “righting its wrong by assessing that Americans need not reconsider travel to Cuba in order to stay safe.”

The Cuban government has said that its hotels are safe, but the U.S. travel advisory still recommends that American travelers avoid the Hotel Nacional and the Hotel Capri. It also advises: “If you experience any acute auditory or sensory phenomena, immediately move to another area.”

A Congressional Research Service memo on the impact of the embassy staff reductions notes that the embassy can no longer provide routine passport and other services to American citizens. “As of late September 2017, the U.S. Embassy has been only able to provide emergency assistance to U.S. citizens in Cuba,” it said.

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