Good News: Increasing U.S. Travel to Cuba

A website for travel professionals reports that recently U.S. travel to Cuba is increasing. It cites Tom Popper,  the president of InsightCuba, which specializes in travel to the island, who says it has seen an increase of 30% for such travel in May, June and July 2018 over the prior year.[1]

One of the problems many U.S. nationals encounter in planning a trip to Cuba is not finding flights to Cuba on Expedia, TripAdvisor or Orbitz. This is due to such businesses wanting to avoid hassling with the airlines that fly to the island having an obligation to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for confirming that U.S. nationals on such flights are going there for a legal reason under the OFAC regulations.

The airlines, however, have no such difficulty because when you buy a ticket to fly to Cuba, you merely have to hit “accept” on the affidavit pop-up that you are traveling under one of 12 general licenses for U.S. legal travel to Cuba, which are described on OFAC’s website. The traveler, therefore, before buying a ticket must carefully review that website and determine which of the following 12 general licenses fits the planned trip:

  1. family visits;
  2. official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
  3. journalistic activity;
  4. professional research and professional meetings;
  5. educational activities;
  6. religious activities;
  7. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
  8. support for the Cuban people;
  9. humanitarian projects;
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and
  12. certain authorized export transactions.

U.S. travelers to Cuba also need to review this OFAC statement (para. 32) about spending in Cuba by “persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction:”

  • “There is no specific dollar limit on authorized expenses; however, in accordance with the NSPM [National Security Presidential Memorandum], OFAC is amending the CACR [Cuban Assets Control Regulations] to restrict persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction from engaging in direct financial transactions with entities and subentities identified on the State Department’s Cuba Restricted List, with certain exceptions. See 31 CFR § 515.209 and § 515.421. Consistent with these authorizations and restrictions, authorized travelers may engage in transactions ordinarily incident to travel within Cuba, including payment of living expenses and the acquisition in Cuba of goods for personal consumption there. In addition, travelers are authorized to acquire in Cuba and import as accompanied baggage into the United States merchandise for personal use only. Value imports remain subject to the normal limits on duty and tax exemptions for merchandise imported as accompanied baggage and for personal use.” (Emphasis added.)

As this OFAC statement indicates, the U.S. State Department has published its “List of Restricted Entities and Subentities Associated with Cuba as of November 9, 2017.” Direct transactions with these entities and subentities by “persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction” are prohibited. The State Department also has published “Frequently Asked Questions on the Cuba Restricted List (Nov. 8, 2017).”

Finally Americans thinking about going to Cuba should know that the two major carriers to the island—Delta and American—have taken over many routes abandoned by other airlines and with the experience of the last several years have figured out the best size of aircrafts and frequency of flights to Cuba from the gateways of New York City, Houston, Atlanta and Miami. The result? Round-trip tickets to Cuba from these gateways are inexpensive, such as $300 from JFK in New York.

The traveler will be aided in all of this by working with a company, like InsightCuba, that specializes in travel to the island.

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[1] Cogswell, Under the Radar, Cuba Market Comes Back, travelmarket report (Aug. 1, 2018).

Perplexing Status of U.S. Travel to Cuba 

Three recent news reports have muddied the waters about U.S. visitors to Cuba .

First, last year was a record year for tourism in Cuba with 4.7 million visitors pumping more than $3 billion into the country’s struggling economy. Travelers from the U.S. rose to 619,000, which is more than six times the pre-Obama level.[1]

However, as a result of Hurricane Irma’s hitting the island last September and the Trump Administration’s hostility towards Cuba, including travel restrictions, U.S. visitors to Cuba dropped 30% last month according to Jose Manuel Bisbe York, the president of the Cuban state travel agency. Visitors from other countries also have decreased, but not as much as the U.S. This happened event though Cuba has fixed its tourism facilities over the last several months.[2]

Second, to  counter this recent drop in U.S. visitors to the island, on January 29, a score of US companies linked to the tourism sector met  in Havana to proclaim  that Cuba is a safe destination to which U.S.  citizens can still travel legally. The meeting was organized by InsightCuba, a pioneer in organizing and promoting trips to the island.[3]

An executive of American Airlines, which operates nine daily flights to Cuba, said, at the gathering, “We see many opportunities in Cuba, especially on the Havana-Miami route,” and “we have requested permission for 17 additional flights.” The president of the Association of Tour Operators of the United States, Terry Dale, added, “The message is that Cuba is open to business, safe, wonderful and legal for travelers from the United States” Another U.S. businessman said, “The reality is that Americans can continue to travel to Cuba almost as they did before the new regulations.”

Third, also on January 29 the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs told the Nuevo Herald of Miami that 19 U.S. citizens who had visited Cuba after September 2017 had reported medical symptoms similar to those of some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed there. [4]

The Department’s  spokeswoman did not say whether US citizens reported hearing strange noises – as did some of the 24 diplomatic victims so far confirmed – nor whether they would have stayed at the Nacional or Capri hotels in Havana that previously had been identified as sites of some of the “attacks.” .Nor did it clarify whether U.S. doctors and investigators could have determined whether these travelers would have suffered the same kind of attack as diplomats. It encouraged “those who are concerned to seek medical attention.” For reasons of “privacy”, the Department will not disclose where the alleged attacks occurred or their symptoms or even what cities they had visited.

Conclusion

As explained in a prior post, the U.S. still has 12 general license categories that permit U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. Thus, it is legal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. In addition, the latest revision of the State Department’s travel advisory system does not advise citizens not to travel to Cuba; rather, it suggests that citizens reconsider plans to travel to the island (Category 3 of the new advisory system) and only tells them to avoid Havana’s Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri, where some of the alleged “attacks” on diplomats occurred.

The apparent inability of the U.S. Government after 14 months of investigations here and in Cuba to identify the cause or culprit of the so-called “attacks” on U.S. diplomats and now apparently some ordinary U.S. citizens is at best “perplexing” as State Department officials recently testified at a Senate Subcommittee hearing.[5]

We all need to continue to pay close attention to ongoing developments on these issues.

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[1] Rodriguez, Tourism booming in Cuba despite tougher new Trump policy, Wash. Post (Jan. 19, 2018).

[2] Reuters, Cuba Tourism Slides in Wake of Hurricane Irma, Trump, N.Y. Times (Jan. 29, 2018)

[3]  Tourism companies in the United States say Cuba is a safe destination, CubaDebate (Jan. 29, 2018).

[4]  Torres, 19 visiting Americans  report symptoms of attacks in Cuba, Neuvo Herald (Jan. 29, 2018); Valencia, U.S. citizens in Cuba Suffered Similar Symptoms Experienced by Diplomats in Havana, State Department Says, Newsweek (Jan. 29, 2018); Nineteen tourists from the US have reported symptoms of attacks in Cuba, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 30, 2018).

[5] See posts listed in the “U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba, 2017”     section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA.