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).

Drop in Foreign Tourists for Cuba  

For the First Quarter of 2018, Cuban Tourism Ministry’s commercial director, Michel Bernal, told a news conference in Havana that Cuba had a 7% decline in foreign tourists.  The reporting of this press conference by Reuters of London and by Cuban sources has interesting differences.

Reuters’ Report[1]

There are two major reasons for this reduction.

First is the reduction of U.S. tourists, which was only 56.6% of what it was for the same quarter in 2017. Director Bernal said that this decline was attributable to the U.S. restrictions and warning on travel to Cuba that were imposed by the Trump Administration.

Another reason for the overall decline was unjustified foreigners worries about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma last September and that has been largely repaired.

The overall decline has hurt Cuba’s private sector (the self-employed sector in Cuban terms) that operates bed-and-breakfasts, private restaurants and guides.

Cuban Reports

The primary source of information for Cubans is the hard-copy issues of Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. There also are Cuba’s Internet sources: Cubadebate and Diario de Cuba.

  1. Granma’s Report[2]

Granma did not mention the overall 7% decline in tourism for the first quarter of 2018. Instead it stressed (a) that the “growth of the Cuban tourist industry . . . is a sign of the confidence of the sector in the security and stability of the Greater Antilles;” and (b) Cuba’s recent receipt of “the Excellence Award as the safest country for tourism during the XXXVIII International Trade Fair -Fitur 2018, which took place in January in Madrid.”

Granma did acknowledge that Mr. Bernal had mentioned there had been a “slowdown caused mainly by hurricanes Irma and Maria,” but that Cuba still expected five million tourists this year. Also mentioned was what it called the U.S. “’unjustified ‘travel alert, ‘which tells the citizens of that country “’to reconsider travel to Cuba.”‘ The measure of aggression it tried to justify with the supposed risk of suffering ‘acoustic attacks’ on which, after months of research, there is no evidence or scientific evidence.”

  1. Cubadebate’s Report[3]

This report mentioned the 7% overall decline in the first quarter, the projection of 2 million foreign visitors through May and 5 million for the entire year.

It also reported that the largest number of visitors were Canadians followed by Cubans living abroad. In third place were “American visitors, who because of the blockade imposed by their government cannot travel to the island as tourists and whose arrivals decreased at the end of 2017 due to the passage of Irma, in addition to the restrictive measures promoted in September [2017] by the President Donald Trump. [The reduction of American visitors also was] influenced by travel alerts to Cuba, issued by the State Department after the alleged incidents that occurred in previous months in which officials of the US Embassy in Havana were implicated.”

Cubadebate is a Cuban website published by the Circle of Cuban Journalists against Terrorism , in which Cuban journalists and other nationalities collaborate. It aims to be “a space for information and exchange on topics related to subversion actions and defamatory campaigns organized against Cuba.”  It is published in seven languages, including Spanish and has become the most visible digital medium on the Cuban website.

  1. Diario de Cuba’s Report[4]

A more detailed report of the press conference appeared in Diario de Cuba. It had the 7% decline of tourists in the first quarter. It also said that after Canadians and Cubans living abroad, “US visitors appear in third place, despite measures taken by President Donald Trump, late last year, which included a travel alert to its citizens after the symptoms experienced by diplomatic personnel in Havana.”

Although this blogger has not been able to ascertain much information about this source, it is believed to originate outside Cuba, probably in the U.S., and is believed to be affiliated with Cubanet, which describes itself as an independent source of Cuban news since 1994.

Conclusion

It is not surprising that the number of American visitors to Cuba has declined and that it is attributable in substantial part to the Trump Administration’s harsh rhetoric against Cuba[5] the new U.S. regulations about Americans’ travel to Cuba[6] and the new State Department Travel Advisory about Cuba.[7]

Americans, however, should recognize that there are still 12 categories for legal travel to Cuba by Americans,[8] that the new State Department Travel Advisory for Cuba does not ban travel to the island and instead suggests Americans reconsider any plans to travel to the island and that the asserted basis for the Department’s urging Americans to reconsider is the reported adverse health incidents experienced by some U.S. diplomats who were staying in only two hotels in Havana (Hotels Nacional and Capri).[9] Moreover, Americans also should recognize that visitors to Cuba, especially from the U.S., help to support the privately owned bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, tour guides and others, which now has nearly 30% of the Cuban economy and which is a potential force for changes in Cuba.

In short, as a three-time traveler to Cuba, I urge my fellow Americans:  go to Cuba and have a great time![10]

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[1] Acosta, U.S. visits to Cuba plunge following Trump measures, Reuters (April 24, 2018); Reuters, U.S. Visits to Cuba Plunge Following Trump Measures, N.Y. Times (April 24, 2018).

[2] Pérez, We are a safe tourist destination, Granma (April 24, 2018)

[3] Rectified note: 7% decrease in tourist arrivals to Cuba in the first quarter, Cubadebate (April 24, 2018).

 

[4] The arrival of tourists to Cuba in the first quarter of the year decrease by 7%, Diario de Cuba (April 25, 2018).

[5] See, e.g., President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017)

[6]  See, e.g., New Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Certain Cuban Entities,  dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 8, 2017); Reactions to New U.S. Regulations About U.S. Travel to Cuba and Transactions with Cuban Entities, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 9, 2017); Additional Reactions to New U.S. Regulations Regarding Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 11, 2017).

[7] See, e.g., A New Travel Warning for Americans Traveling to Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Sept. 19, 2017); State Department’s New Travel Advisory System for Cuba and Other Countries, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 11, 2018); Perplexing Status of U.S. Travel to Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 30, 2018).

[8] U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Frequently Asked Questions Related to Travel to Cuba (Questions 5 through 37).

[9]U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Advisory.

[10] Given the new requirement for U.S. person-to-person travel to be with an organized group, one organizer of such groups worthy of consideration is the Center for Cuban Studies based in Brooklyn, N.Y. It specializes in small groups  with different themes such as African Roots of Cuban Culture, Art & Architecture and Cuba in Transition. In addition, for groups between 4 and 20 persons, it will create customized journeys.

Uncertainty Over Future Cuban Policies of Trump Administration

Journalists at an April 4 Miami conference voiced the unanimous opinion that the future Cuban policies of the Trump Administration were uncertain.[1]

This is not a surprising opinion due to the failure of the Administration to appoint senior State Department officials under new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the proposed large reductions in the Department’s budget for the next fiscal year, the overall disarray within the Administration and its preoccupation with other issues. In short, Cuba is not high on the Administration’s list of priorities.

In the meantime, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control apparently is continuing to grant licenses to U.S. companies to operate on the island and to contract with Cuban state enterprises.[2]

At least this uncertainty and continuation of OFAC licensing is better than a return to overt U.S. hostility towards Cuba as has been suggested by President Trump himself and by some of the people involved in the Trump transition and Administration.[3]

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[1] Hernandez, Panel: Relations between Cuba, U.S. remain uncertain under Trump, Miami Herald (Apr. 4, 2017).

[2] Torres, Trump administration continues to issue OFAC licenses authorizing business with Cuba, Miami Herald (April 4, 2017).

[3] See posts listed in “U.S. & Cuba in the Trump Administration, 2017-“ at the end of List of posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.