Meagan Drillinger
Meagan Drillinger

The U.S. State Department said last month that it would add another 26 entries, including 16 hotels, to its list of businesses in Cuba that are off-limits to American tourists. But with travel to Cuba still very much legal when done within the cultural exchange parameters, what does this restricted list mean for U.S. citizens who want to travel to Cuba?

"For anyone doing Cuba trips for Americans in a legal fashion, the truth is there is no change," says David Lee, owner and founder of Cultural Cuba, a luxury-travel-focused destination management company (DMC) that arranges customized trips to Cuba for Americans.

A Bit of Backstory

The Trump administration in June 2017 rolled back some of the Cuba travel restrictions that had been relaxed under President Obama, but the expected initial list of "restricted entities" wasn't published until November. Between that time, Lee said, "We had a boom of people wanting to go, because they didn't know what 'restrictions' meant, and they thought everything was going to be taken away.

"The rhetoric was far worse than what the reality was, but it scared people. The way it was reported was confusing. That announcement affected everyone in our business for, I would say, the first half of 2018."

Even so, Lee said, "We were doing the same itinerary under the new administration that we were doing under the Obama administration, and nothing changed. The only thing that changed was confusion and concern."

Hotels on the restricted list were predominantly hotels that Cultural Cuba was not booking anyway, as many of them are beach resorts. And Americans have not been allowed to legally go to Cuba to simply chill out at an all-inclusive.

"From our perspective, the whole reason to go to Cuba is the art, music, dance, history, and architecture," Lee said. "And that's what makes a 'legal itinerary' for Americans."

Lee says his Cuba business is back on fire like it was a year ago -- Cultural Cuba is having the biggest December in its history. "I think people just got to the point where the restrictions were old news, and the confusion from last year is subsiding because we and other DMCs have been educating agents."

Direct flights to Cuba from the U.S. still include American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines. 

One Noticeable Change

The one difference Lee said he noticed was that the Trump administration appears to enforce some of the rules that the Obama administration seemed more relaxed about, such as a requirement to keep all documentation from a Cuba trip for five years. "This is very explicit, and it's something we do for our clients," Lee said. "In the past no one has ever needed to present it, but that has suddenly changed. We're getting contacted from clients on a weekly basis asking to present their itineraries."

Lee said it happens when clients are going to get approved for, or renew, Global Entry.

"I always tell people our job [at Cultural Cuba] is to be careful," he said. "We don't mess around with this. Usually presenting the itinerary will suffice, or a sponsor letter from the organization you toured with."

Booking Cuba

It remains that for agents who really want to make money from booking Cuba, the most effective way is to work with a DMC that pays commission. " We will be happy to get on the phone with agents and with their clients to make everyone feel safe and comfortable," Lee said. "A travel agent can't really book Cuba like they book everywhere else, because they can't earn commission like they normally do. 

"The cultural exchanges, if they are done right, are the highlights of a trip to Cuba," he said. "No one should think of the rules as 'restrictions.' It's the right way to do it. When you see the itineraries, they are all amazing, with activities like a private rum-tasting with a director of Havana Club. It's not a lecture in a museum for three hours. Cuba is a living museum."

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