Americans remain confused about travel to Cuba

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Photo Credit: Novikov Aleksey/Shutterstock

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 the law."  

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 trips." 

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 as planned."

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 rules. 

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.

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