Cuba perception takes another hit with latest travel restriction

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Performers on stilts in Plaza Vieja in the old town of Havana.
Performers on stilts in Plaza Vieja in the old town of Havana. Photo Credit: Christian Schmidt

The U.S. government’s decision to restrict charter-air operations between the U.S. to Cuba doesn’t have a practical effect on many tour itineraries, but it's another blow to consumer perception about legal tourism there.

The action will halt charter flights between the U.S. and Cuban airports outside of Havana following a 60-day wind-down period. The DOT will also impose a cap on public charter flights to Havana.

The moves follow the Trump administration’s ban on commercial flights to Cuba destinations outside of Havana, which went into effect last month.

The majority of tours sold to American travelers won’t be directly impacted by the action. For example, David Lee, the owner of Cultural Cuba, said all of its U.S. clients fly in and out of Havana and do not use charter air.

Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, said that commercial airfare to Havana is still “available, affordable and easy.”

But, he said, “Unfortunately, it will have a negative impact on tourist travel to Cuba because it’s another headline that confuses would-be travel.”

InsightCuba does have a tour, Undiscovered Cuba, that begins in Havana and ends in Santiago de Cuba, using the airport in Holguin. After the government restricted commercial air last month, Insight switched to charter service. With that no longer an option, president Tom Popper said there would be changes to that itinerary. It will operate roundtrip from Havana and skip Santiago de Cuba and add Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

“We’ve been providing legal travel across four presidential administrations, and you don’t last for 20 years without being able to adapt while still providing transformative experiences for your travelers,” Popper said.

In order to “dispel” some of the confusion about airlift to Cuba, Popper said, InsightCuba is offering free air for guests who register on Undiscovered Cuba, Classic Cuba, Legendary Cuba and Weekend in Havana tours.

In the explanation of the action, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that it would “further restrict the Cuban regime’s ability to obtain revenue, which it uses to finance its ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its unconscionable support for dictator Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.”

Laverty and Popper said the restrictions would predominately affect people traveling to see family who live outside of Havana. Popper said the charter services were developed more than 40 years ago to enable family visits between the U.S. and Cuba, at a time when there was no direct commercial service.

“For Cubans who live in the U.S. and travel home to see family ... this is a heartbreaking measure that will provide serious challenges to them and their loved ones,” Laverty said.
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Jeri Clausing and Robert Silk contributed to this report.

Correction: One of the cities on the Undiscovered Cuba itinerary was incorrectly named in a previous version of this report. It is Sancti Spiritus.

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