U.S. Travel Industry Tries to Figure Out Trump’s Cuban Stance
As President Trump outlined a stricter policy toward Cuba on Friday, travel industry representatives scrambled to decode new prohibitions and reassure clients that the island was not off limits.
Hotel owners, tour operators and online booking agencies — who have been at the heart of much-expanded contact between the two countries over the last few years, culminating in early 2016, when President Barack Obama eased restrictions — took what they saw as confusing signals from the White House as a sign that the policy would be refined over the coming weeks.
“It appears to me that they are making this up as they go,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which has been organizing trips to that country for several years.
Mr. Laverty said he fielded “endless” calls during the past two days from travel operators and travelers trying to figure out how they would be affected by the new policy. On Friday, he wrote in an email to clients that the organization was “very confident” the policy “will not impact the fall trips to Cuba.”
Under the new regulations, individual Americans travelers will no longer be able to visit the island on what are known as people-to-people trips, a popular mode of travel introduced as part of Mr. Obama’s historic thaw. People-to-people trips will now be permitted only for groups and must be organized by a licensed tour operator.
Tour operators and Cuba experts predicted that the Cuban government would find loopholes. John Caulfield, who was chief of the United States diplomatic mission to Havana from 2011 to 2014, said the government could move tourism assets into the control of civilian ministries.
“In an economy like Cuba’s, they can rename things and change things around,” he said.
Still, even if the new rules were workable, travel representatives said, tighter regulation would put off Americans from traveling to a country still struggling with its tourism infrastructure.
“We were finally getting to a point where there was a sense of normalcy; people felt it was legal to come to Cuba,” Mr. Laverty said. “Now this is pushing us back to a point where Americans don’t know if it’s legal. That will dissuade a lot of Americans.”
Two sectors that were left apparently unscathed by the new policy were cruises and flights: Fees paid by cruise lines and airlines will be exempt from restrictions on doing business with the military.
Marriott International, whose subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar, may also have escaped the crackdown, which the Treasury Department said did not affect existing business deals.
The Havana Sheraton announced on its website on Friday that it would require each guest to complete an affidavit at check-in certifying authorization to travel in Cuba. Marriott said in a statement on Thursday that it was “still analyzing” the policy directive, and its “full effect on our current and planned operations in Cuba.”
The consensus is that those who will suffer most are smaller-scale businesses that rely on individual travel — private bed-and-breakfasts, cafes, restaurants, tour guides and taxis. And fewer individual travelers would also affect commercial airlines, who last year began operating dozens of daily flights to Cuba.
Cuba is Airbnb’s fastest-growing market, with 22,000 rooms registered to its booking site and 70,000 arrivals every month on the island, according to figures published by the company. About 35 percent of Airbnb’s guests in Cuba are American; 12 percent of American travelers to Cuba stay in an Airbnb-listed property.
The company said in a statement on Friday that it was “reviewing what this policy could mean for this type of travel” but was pleased that it would be able to continue to “support Airbnb hosts in Cuba.”
But those hosts are likely to see a decline in demand, travel representatives said.
“Much of the growth has been from people booking from Airbnb and private casas,” said Eddie Lubbers, president of Cuba Travel Network, using the Spanish term for homes. “It’s not just casas — it’s restaurants, it’s private tour guides.”
He added, “It’s going to have an effect.”
Source: The New York Times