The last American cruise ship pulled out of Havana for the foreseeable future Wednesday after the Trump administration tightened travel restrictions to Cuba by banning what’s called a “people-to-people” travel license used by many Americans to visit the country.
The U.S. says it will still allow travel for certain group trips that have already been authorized, in which a traveler has “already completed at least one travel-related transaction (such as purchasing a flight or reserving accommodation) prior to June 5, 2019.” But all U.S. cruise ships with current Cuban itineraries are being rerouted to other destinations.
Americans account for the second-highest number of travelers to Cuba after Canada, and the ban is poised to deliver economic pain to both the state-run tourism sector, as well as a burgeoning industry of private entrepreneurs. The Associated Press reported that Cuban state could lose out on $130 million during peak cruise season.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement the travel ban was being implemented because of Cuba’s “destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere,” its efforts to suppress democracy and its support for “U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua.”
Ana Quintana, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the Obama administration weakened Cuba travel restrictions with executive action, referring to the series of actions he took to restore diplomatic ties with the country. “Now the Trump administration is essentially correcting those executive actions to bring the U.S. back in compliance with the law,” she said.
But while supporters of a hardline approach to Cuba are hailing the decision, advocates for normalizing relations with Cuba say the U.S. is infringing on a fundamental freedom of movement.
“It is really not the government’s job to go around policing peoples’ vacation plans,” said James Williams, president of the advocacy organization Engage Cuba.
How we got here
After Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 and began to align the country with the Soviet Union, the U.S. placed an embargo on exports to Cuba in 1960. For decades, the U.S. has banned tourism travel to the country.
But there were still several categories of approved travel, including the “people-to-people” license, which allowed travel as long as it promoted contact between the American and Cuban people.
The license was first expanded by President Bill Clinton, then restricted by President George H.W. Bush and expanded again under President Barack Obama in 2016.
Obama sought to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba throughout his tenure. In 2014, he moved to restore diplomatic ties between the two nations, lifting certain travel restrictions, authorizing the reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington, giving U.S. banks access to Cuba’s economy and removing Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, Congress never lifted completely the embargo against exports to the island.
“The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict; struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation,” Obama said in a speech about restoring the two countries’ relationship. “It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind.”
The people-to-people license — falling under the approved category of “educational” travel — was interpreted broadly under Obama. People-to-people travel had to be conducted under the auspices of an organization promoting contact — either individually or in groups — between U.S. and Cuban people, according to the Treasury Department’s definition. In practice, this meant Americans could freely travel to Cuba as long as they planned their trip around engaging with the Cuban people and culture in some way. Many travel agencies designed and sold group tours that met the requirements.
In 2017, President Donald Trump announced he was rolling back the Obama-era policies and would seek to end economic practices that “disproportionately benefit” the Cuban government, part of a larger U.S. crackdown on Cuba that includes the latest ban.
In April of this year, Trump declared that, for the first time, lawsuits could be filed against businesses operating on land obtained by the Cuban government after the country’s 1959 revolution. The president also recently reversed another Obama-era rule that allowed Cuban baseball players to sign directly with the MLB.
In another seeming setback — or at least strange chapter — for U.S.-Cuban relations, U.S. embassy workers in Cuba last year reported a mysterious illness caused by strange, high-pitched sounds, resulting in a drawdown of American personnel. While the State Department released a travel advisory claiming it was a targeted attack, a more recent scientific analysis of one recording of the sound suggested the noise was actually caused by crickets.
There are still a number of approved categories for travel to Cuba, like for family visits, official government business or journalistic activity. In addition, the U.S. allows traveling by sports teams, taking part in cultural events, attending business meetings and volunteering in Cuba. There is also a “Support for the Cuban People” license, which allows visitors as long as they assist Cuban people in some way.
How it affects the U.S. tourism industry
The “people-to-people” license has the most immediate effect on cruise companies and airlines, which fall under the State Department’s ban on passenger or recreational vehicles visiting Cuba.
The Cruise Line International Association said in a statement that the move would immediately affect 800,000 passenger bookings that are scheduled or already underway.
“It’s a huge, huge hit,” said Engage Cuba’s Williams, adding that about 70 percent of American travelers who visited Cuba last year went for a non-family purpose.
Even though the most popular category of U.S. travel to Cuba has been eliminated, commercial airlines retain more leeway because of the other acceptable categories.
The Department of Transportation reported that about 893,000 Americans flew to Cuba in 2018, up from 177,000 in 2016. The Associated Press reported that cruise ships brought 142,721 people to the island in the first four months of this year, up 300 percent over the same time period last year.
Cruise lines, airline operators and travel agencies have said they are studying the changes and will provide customers with up-to-date information on their current services and opportunities to travel legally to Cuba in the future.
What the ban means for Cuba
The latest travel restrictions mark another blow to Cuba’s already fragile economy. The country is grappling with food shortages, and its oil supply is at risk, as its major supplier Venezuela faces a dire economic and political crisis.
“During the Obama-era, there was mutual interest and discussions on narco-trafficking, on immigration issues,” said Karen Poreh, a senior director at the Albright Stonebridge Group. Poreh added that now, there is limited staffing in the embassies of both countries.
“It is a significant setback for relations,” Poreh said. “But there has been so much progress in the last few years, that I don’t think we are going back to an era without mutual understanding.”
The Trump administration’s policies aim to put pressure on Cuba by keeping “U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services,” Mnuchin said in a statement Tuesday.
The recent spike in visitors and investment in Cuba has also helped create a boom in entrepreneurship. In 2017, there were 567,000 licensed entrepreneurs in Cuba, up from 157,000 in 2010. Opponents of the restrictions say the latest travel ban won’t target the Cuban government, as intended, but rather Cuban entrepreneurs and American companies that are doing business in the country.
Further travel restrictions could dampen business expansion, but Americans are likely to continue seeking ways to visit the increasingly popular travel destination.
“At the end of the day, it is still possible to travel to Cuba,” Poreh said. “We will need to see how this affects the companies who facilitate travel to Cuba, but there are still ways to go.”