U.S. bookings to Cuba expected to rise, but Americans still confused about travel rules

A new survey of Cuba tour operators and other travel providers shows the majority expect U.S. travel to the island to increase in 2019 despite ongoing confusion about the legality of travel to the island.

The survey, which was conducted by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) in late 2018, was released Wednesday. It reflects input from 23 U.S. tour operators and other Cuba travel providers.

Respondents said they expected to see an increase in bookings for cruise, study abroad and people-to-people group travel to Cuba this year, with cruises showing the most robust growth. More than 71 percent of the respondents who book cruises to Cuba said they expected those bookings to be up in 2019.

Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer specializing in U.S.-Cuba matters, said that after President Donald Trump gave a get-tough speech on Cuba in Miami in June 2017, there was the impression among Americans that drastic changes were coming in regulations governing U.S. travel to Cuba.

Other than requiring Americans making people-to-people trips, which are designed to encourage contacts with the Cuban people, and to travel in groups rather than individually, “the legal aspect of travel to Cuba is virtually unchanged,” said Muse, who participated in a conference call organized by CREST.

Individual travel similar to people-to-people trips is still allowed under another category called support for the Cuban people, he added.

Travelers in this category, for example, must maintain a full-time agenda in support of Cuban civil society, eating and staying at private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts and having meaningful exchanges with Cubans who aren’t in government.

The message is that travel to Cuba is safe and legal, said Kate Simpson, president of Academic Travel Abroad, during a conference call organized by CREST.

The company organizes study trips abroad for college and high school students. Simpson said it is planning to establish a high school program in Havana — something it wouldn’t consider if it thought there were safety issues. “We’re a very risk-adverse company,” she said.

During the first half of 2018, bookings to Cuba fell off drastically but began to recover in the latter half of the year. Cuba still finished the year with a record 4.75 million international visitors — although it missed its goal of 5 million.


Walter Maruca, 25, left, and Donatella Mirabeli, 23, tourists from Italy, take selfies in Old Havana, Cuba. MATIAS J. OCNER

Nearly 81 percent of the respondents to the CREST survey reported decreases of U.S. travelers visiting Cuba during the first half of 2018; 62 percent reported decreases of 20 percent or more.

In 2018, more than 638,000 Americans visited Cuba, excluding Cuban Americans, who are counted in a separate category.

Among the top reasons the tour operators cited for the decline in U.S. travel to Cuba in the first half of 2018 were:

A Level 3 travel advisory (reconsider travel) by the U.S. State Department in the wake of mysterious health incidents involving U.S. diplomats, primarily at their Havana homes. In August, the State Department downgraded that to a Level 2 rating (“exercise increased caution”).

A belief that new U.S. policies make travel to Cuba illegal for U.S. citizens. Americans may still travel to Cuba under 12 categories of travel approved by the U.S. government but must make sure they follow U.S. regulations.

Fear that travelers might be subject to “unnecessary scrutiny” by U.S. authorities when returning from a trip to the island.

“There is no reason to believe that the Trump administration will interfere too much with travel to Cuba,” said Muse.

But he pointed out that there is a U.S. requirement to document permissible travel to Cuba and hold on to the records for five years. In case questions ever arise, “every traveler should keep a log of daily activities” while in Cuba, he said.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.