The U. S. State Department ruled last week that it would make permanent the staff cuts it implemented at the U.S. Embassy in Havana six months ago, following still-unresolved health issues with some embassy employees.
Effective March 5, the embassy will operate "with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions" and as an unaccompanied post, at which no family members are permitted to reside.
The ruling came despite a petition signed by a group of 33 tour operators and Cuba educational travel specialists to restaff the embassy and change Cuba's travel advisory from a level 3
("reconsider travel") to a level 2 ("exercise increased caution") and to only designate the parts of Havana where the health incidents took place as level 3.
An investigation into the source and cause of the alleged attacks is ongoing, but the health and safety of U.S. government personnel and family members were key factors in its decision, the State Department said.
The health issues, the sole reason given for Cuba's level 3 warning, surfaced last September when the State Department advised citizens that 24 embassy staff members in Havana were afflicted with symptoms including complaints of hearing loss, dizziness, headaches, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping, from mid-2016 through August 2017.
A month later the Trump administration withdrew 60% of its embassy staff, issued a warning urging Americans not to travel to Cuba and expelled 15 diplomats from Cuba's embassy in Washington.
Cuba welcomed 4.7 million visitors last year, including 620,000 Americans. In a recent survey, 42 tour operators and U.S. travel companies who collectively brought more than 17,000 travelers to Cuba in 2016 and 2017 said that not one of their U.S. travelers visiting Cuba reported any of the health issues similar to those of the embassy employees, the Center for Responsible Travel reported.
Cuba is also free from any other State Department concerns, including civil unrest, crime and violence, and was voted the safest place to travel at the International Travel Fair (FITUR) in Madrid in January.
"A level 3 rating is not justified for Cuba since there are no confirmed causes of private citizens or travelers contracting symptoms similar to the diplomats," said Andrea Holbrook, CEO of Holbrook Travel. "We've been operating in Cuba since 2000. Cuba remains one of the safest destinations in which we operate."
The country hopes to top five million visitors in 2018, but the Center for Responsible Travel reported that there was already a 33.5% decrease in U.S. Tourists to Cuba from 2016 to 2017, with much of the decline starting in the second half of last year, after the State Department's warning about the health attacks, making that goal difficult to attain.