Back in 2014, then-President Barack Obama signed an agreement that opened the door for hundreds of thousands of U.S. tourists to visit Cuba. Last Friday, current President Donald Trump declared he was slamming the door shut again. Has Trump’s Cuba policy ended the Cuban Thaw?
The answer is, not exactly. Obama’s loosening of the tourism ban wasn’t a complete green light for American tourists who wanted a Cuban vacation. And Trump’s professed crackdown doesn’t look like it will be a total red light, either. The actual policy won’t be written for 90 days, but from what’s been said so far, only some more recent parts of Obama’s Cuba initiative will be rolled back.
Included is the part that allowed Americans to make “person to person” visits to Cuba, without being part of a tour group. The visits still had to be for education or other approved purposes, but for the first time since the 1960s, individual tourists could go to Cuba (and it’s rumoured the U.S. government never truly enforced the restrictions).
So, it looks as though that privilege will be ending. From now on, if you’re from the United States, you’ll be able to visit Cuba only as part of a group tour approved by the government. And if Trump can be believed (always a dubious assumption), the rules will be strictly enforced.
As well, you’ll only be able to stay in hotels that don’t have ties to the Cuban military, which controls much of the economy, including some hotel chains. The U.S. government will reportedly publish a list of hotels it approves of.
How badly this will slow the flow of U.S. tourists into Cuba in the years to come is debatable. Last year, about 600,000 Americans visited the island. About half of them were Cuban-Americans visiting their families back home; they’ll still be able to travel freely under the new rules. That leaves about 300,000 real tourists, but how many were on “person to person” trips is unclear.
It’s fair to assume that a lot of general tourists are visiting as part of a tour. Cuba is an exotic place to a lot of Americans, and not the easiest country to travel in unless you’re being met at the airport and driven around. So perhaps the impact might not be devastating.
But there are some real concerns. A number of major cruise lines have added Havana to their Caribbean itineraries; the names include Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas, Azamara Club Cruises and Carnival. A few lines also offer full Cuban cruises And according to Cruise Critic, the bible for cruise lovers, almost all the U.S. passengers on those ships are entering Cuba on person to person visas.
Will Americans still be allowed to take these cruises? I’m guessing the cruise lines will be forced to restructure their visits as cultural tours in order to stay within the new rules. How that will work is still to be seen.
U.S. airlines have also started regular flights to Cuba: will the loss of person to person travellers give them second thoughts? As it is, the flood of tourists has been less than they’d anticipated. American Airlines recently cut back its flights to Cuba, and Jetblue has started using smaller planes. If the new policy drastically reduces the number of passengers taking the flights, some of the airlines could stop flying to Cuba.
It’s all a disappointment for many Americans who have dreamed of seeing Cuba in their lifetimes: I’ve talked with more than a few who have it high on their bucket lists. But it’s also a blow for the small tourism businesses that have cropped up in Cuba over the past few years. There are now thousands of Cubans who make their living by accommodating tourists in their casas particulares and Airbnb apartments, driving them around in their vintage cars, and serving them food in family-run restaurants, called paladares.
However, for others who’ve been dreading the full onslaught of American tourists – including some Cubans – the news is not all bad. More Canadians visit the island each year than any other nationality, and having the country pretty much to ourselves has been a rare privilege. Just being in a country without a constant backdrop of Starbucks and McDonald’s outlets is a nice change.
So, for those who still want to see Cuba the way it was, it seems there’s still some time – and perhaps a lot. Trump’s Cuba policy could be around for a while. It’s hard to see relations getting much better over the next couple of years, without a regime change in one country or the other. But then, a year ago, few of us foresaw the world looking the way it does today.
If you can go to Cuba legally, it’s still a fascinating trip. And if you’re an American, the time to go might be right now, while the door is still open.