When Peggy Goldman, owner of InsightCuba, heard that Joe Biden had won the presidency, she felt she'd "died and went to heaven."

"I think that anybody in the travel space who's been looking for some direction to get out of this mess is celebrating," she said.

The "mess" Goldman was talking about is hinted at in her company's name. She and other Cuba specialists are hopeful that President-elect Biden will reopen travel to the island.

For cruise lines and airlines, hotel companies and tour operators, restrictions on travel to Cuba ordered by President Trump in 2019 crippled what had been heralded as one of the most exciting travel "openings" in the past 20 years after President Obama eased decades-old Cuba embargoes, including a travel embargo.

Now, those operators hope the president-elect stands by what they recall him saying when running for office.

"Biden said that he would go back to the thinking of the Obama administration, and we're hoping he's going to remember that," Goldman said.

ASTA, which criticized the Trump administration's shutdown of Cuba, believes Biden will undo "at least some" of Trump's Cuba policies, said Eben Peck, the Society's executive vice president of advocacy.

"Whether that exactly matches the Obama administration's policy or something in between remains to be seen, as does the timing of such changes with everything else that's going to be on the incoming administration's plate come January," he said. 

Peck also cited Biden's campaign promise to "promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights" and his calling Americans the "best ambassadors for freedom" on the island.

In June 2019, the Trump administration banned cruising to Cuba and the people-to-people category of travel that most tour operators used. The government then restricted many flights between the U.S. and the island and prevented U.S. citizens from doing business with entities tied to the Cuban military, which is deeply entrenched in hotel ownership on the island. The new rules made it difficult for many tour operators to run trips there, especially beyond Havana, Goldman said.

"[Trump] essentially canceled most of the programs that we were running," she said. "More than that, he threw a pall over the whole idea of being able to go to Cuba. It became something where people were thinking, 'can I go, is it really legal?' It created a lot of confusion around the issue."

Travel restrictions can be enacted -- or lifted -- by executive order, bypassing Congress. It's how both Obama and Trump shaped travel policy to Cuba.

Goldman predicts that Biden will return to Obama-era Cuba policies by 2022, a timeline also predicted by David Lee, owner of Cultural Cuba. 

"I'm not certain that this is going to be a hot-button issue that [will be addressed] in the first quarter, but I do expect it in 2021," he said. 

Lee added that most Americans, "red or blue," think there should be a change in Cuba policy, "if not a complete lifting of the embargo at some point." 

Joe Sandillo, founder of Almaz Journeys, which specializes in Cuba and Colombia, said that Biden understands that the Obama-era policies benefitted many thousands of Cubans who worked as guides and drivers, rented rooms to visitors and operated privately owned restaurants.

"And they've all been hurt by the current administration's policies," he said. "I am hopeful that [Biden] understands that engagement, not isolation, is what will most help the Cuban people."

Lee favors the U.S. goal that "the majority, if not all, of the money that someone spends as an American traveler in Cuba should go towards the people and not to the government." 

"But if you put so many restrictions about where people can stay, you're basically not letting them go," he said. "You're scaring them away, and then there is no support for the Cuban people. Nothing is gained politically. It just creates a permanent wall."

Not everyone thinks a Biden administration will improve life on the island. Orlando Burgos, owner of Journeys by Silver Fox, said that while American policy under Trump may have been too stringent, Obama "did nothing to negotiate changes to the embargo for the benefit of the Cuban people."

"The U.S. needs a different dialogue," he said. "That is doubtful with the Biden ideology."

Mathy Wasserman, manager with Los Angeles-based Flying Giraffe Travel, said that when it was open, there was very high interest in Cuba and that people understood "tourism was assisting Cuba to find financial footing."

She said she believes that when Covid is no longer a threat, "people will be interested again in going to Cuba. Certainly the cruise ships that were en route to the island when the edict came down were full. The itineraries were more than just stops in Havana. I think the interest will be there. It's such a fascinating culture, such a tremendous mix of Afro-Caribbean and other cultures. It's a unique and special experience in the Caribbean."

Travel advisors benefit from the fact that, even with fewer restrictions, Cuba is still a complicated destination to book. 

"Even if the Biden administration matches the Obama rules, travel to Cuba will remain complicated and well suited to booking through an advisor as opposed to DIY bookings," Peck said.

Not everyone thinks Biden will immediately go back to the Obama-era policies. 

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said that there are several reasons Biden may decide not to, the most significant being that his loss in Florida was due largely to the Cuban vote there. Democrats, Kavulich wrote, will not want to "further disrupt electoral opportunities" for both the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential elections. 

Johanna Jainchill and Christina Jelski contributed to this report. 


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