Two months after the Trump administration made sweeping
changes to Cuba travel policy, tour operators say Americans are still baffled
about how to visit the island legally.
"There is confusion in the marketplace," said Tom
Popper, president of InsightCuba. "There need not be, but it still is not
easy to travel to Cuba as an individual, no matter how you look at it."
The administration's June 4 regulations eliminated U.S.
cruise ship calls to Cuban ports and put an end to the people-to-people
subcategory of travel, which had been the most common way Americans visited
Cuba. Many companies had already been running trips under categories including
humanitarian, religious, academic, professional meetings and support for the
Cuban people (SCP), which is now the most common way for the average traveler
to legally visit Cuba.
Travelers have two options when it comes to Cuba travel. The
simplest is to travel with a tour provider, which helps ensure that the trip
adheres to the rules regarding accommodations, paperwork and activities. The
other option is independent travel, but planning such a trip with airfare,
accommodations, paperwork and a full schedule of compliant activities gets
tricky, Popper said.
"Arranging activities in advance is time-consuming,
because communication with providers on the island is difficult," he said.
"And the guidelines are vague as to which activities are compliant with
the current regulations. When it gets too confusing, travelers tend to shy away
and go elsewhere."
U.S. tour operators specializing in Cuba travel can remove
that angst by customizing travel and activities for groups, which can be as
small as two or three people.
Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, said, "There
are still lots of ways to visit Cuba. For example, we get calls from families
saying they want to come for Christmas, so we put together a program for them
that adheres to the SCP regulations for a full schedule of activities that
directly support the Cuban people."
And tour operators will ensure the trip's legality.
Peggy Goldman, founder and president of Friendly Planet,
said, "As long as Americans book their trips through a tour operator who
has experience in legal travel, who has deep contacts on the island and can
fill an itinerary with activities that fully comply with the [administration's]
rules, they have no worry at all as to whether or not they are complying with
She said Americans are continuing to visit Cuba, "although
in fewer numbers."
She added, "I expect that the numbers will grow over
time, as travelers learn the facts and regain confidence in the legality of the
Friendly Planet continues to get reservations every day for
its three programs with set departure dates, and it is continuing to book small
groups, Goldman said.
"We've reduced the size of groups to a maximum of 16,
but we're also getting bookings from families and small groups of friends who
want to travel together on customized programs," she said.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the new regulations,
some Cuba operators report that business is up.
Access Culinary Trips, which is licensed to operate
small-group culinary programs in Cuba under the SCP category, reported an
increase in demand for its tours, "despite the confusion following the
June 4 announcement," said CEO Tamar Lowell. "We continue to operate
Lowell said that Cuba remains one of its top three
destinations, along with Italy and Vietnam, and that because its tours always
met the SCP criteria, it didn't have to make many changes to adhere to the new
At InsightCuba, Popper said his company had just completed a
full review of its eight Cuba group programs before the June announcement.
"We retooled our tours, added some activities, took out
some others," he said. "Every tour already was compliant with SCP
regulations, so we did not have to tweak much."
Popper reported that bookings for the company's December
trips are up, as are several programs slated for 2020.
A music-themed tour in partnership with Putomayo World
Travel, originally slated for next March, has been moved to November 2020.
Laverty said that although Cuba Educational Travel has a lot
of business on the books for the end of the year and beyond, he estimates that
revenue for the period of June 2019 to June 2020 will be down by 15% compared
with the same period a year earlier because of the policy changes.