The election of Biden as president has inspired a lot of post-Covid travel dreams about Cuba, particularly among advisors and tour operators who specialize in travel to the island.
What will president-elect Joe Biden do about Cuba after he's sworn in on Jan. 20? What are the possibilities for U.S.-Cuba travel? That was the question posed to an impressive group of Cuba experts during a recent Zoom webinar regarding the possibility that the Biden administration would relax travel restrictions to Cuba.
The webinar date, not coincidentally, marked the sixth anniversary of the announcement on Dec. 17, 2014, by presidents Obama and Fidel Castro to normalize diplomatic relations.
William LeoGrande, professor of government and associate vice provost at American University, reminisced about that announcement in 2014.
"The reaction in Cuba was so moving," he said. "Church bells rang as if the Cold War had ended 60 years of repression." He added that there were big celebrations when Biden was elected.
"Restricting travel was one of [President] Trump's main objectives, in addition to putting severe limits on remittances and cutting off the revenue Cuba earned from its export of medical services," LeoGrande said. "He eliminated the people-to-people category of travel, restricted academic exchanges, prohibited participation in cultural and sports events, ended cruise travel from the U.S., downsized embassies and closed consular sections and prohibited U.S. visitors from staying in government-owned hotels, which really hurt group business."
The panelists were hopeful that Biden jumps on the Cuba train early on his presidency.
But moderator John McAuliff, founder and executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development and coordinator of the Cuba/U.S. People to People Partnership, suggested that Cuba might not be a priority for the new administration.
"After Obama was elected, his first Cuba move was to do what he said he'd do during his campaign: end all restrictions on travel and remittances," McAuliff said. "Biden said the same thing during his campaign, but anonymous sources have said he will do nothing regarding Cuba because of his focus on domestic issues."
"What can Biden do?" McAuliff asked the panelists.
Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel, said he hoped for a return to the people-to-people category of travel and more cultural performances. "We need to return to those categories of travel. We need to remove all restrictions on lodging, permit corporate retreats and big events where hotels can be used as venues for conferences and for lodging groups," he said.
Laverty also is pushing for the removal of air and sea restrictions and for all airports to reopen to commercial air service and private jets. Right now commercial aircraft from the U.S. are restricted to operations at Havana's airport.
He pointed to the Conference of the Americas, which brings together heads of state every three years; it's scheduled to be held next year in the U.S. The event, he said, "will force Biden to figure out his policy on Cuba and Latin America."
"Cuba was present at the 2015 event when Obama was president, and he and Castro held a private meeting," Laverty said.
Rita McKniff, the founder of Like a Cuban travel agency, lives in Havana. She has seen the impact on the Cuban people of both the Obama and Trump administrations. "In 2016 a guy I know opened a small printing office, which soon became a huge digital design business," McKniff said. "He had 10 employees working for him. Then with Trump, tourism slowed down, my friend had to let five people go. Then with Covid, it all ended. Now it's just he and his wife trying to keep the business alive."
The only category of Cuban travel open to leisure travelers these days is "support for the Cuban people." "I offer an intensive, immersive experience for travelers who book this with me," she said. "I use casa particulares, [private homes owned by Cubans]. My clients dine at private restaurants where the money goes directly to the Cuban people."
McKniff hopes that as Covid ends and vaccines take effect, that her business will pick up. "It's been a really rough year," she said.
Cuba expert Tom Popper, former president of InsightCuba, was unable to join the panel due to technical difficulties, but Greg Miller, head of the Center for Responsible Travel (Crest), a nonprofit, policy-oriented research organization focused on critical tourism issues and responsible tourism practices and one of the sponsors of the panel, stepped in as replacement. Miller cited the need for a bilateral dialogue, the restoration of Americans' right to travel freely and the return to a policy of engagement.
"Let's not lose the Cuban people," Miller said. "They see their well-being linked to a better livelihood in Cuba. Close to 99% of the Cuban people were better off from a policy of engagement. We need to strengthen household-based tourism, mitigate the impacts of climate change and legalize travel to Cuba."
McAuliff cited the upcoming Georgia election on Jan. 5. "This is important," he said. "If the Democrats control the Senate, we will have a full ambassador to Cuba and will not get stuck with lower-level officials."
Laverty pointed to the currency change set to take effect in Cuba on Jan. 1. The country will unify its two currencies, the Cuban peso and the convertible peso, ending a system that's existed for nearly 30 years. The new exchange rate will be 24 Cuban pesos to the dollar and is intended to make the Cuban economy more accessible to foreign investors at a time when the pandemic has cut off much-needed tourism dollars.
"No one knows what the exact impact of this will be," Laverty said. "Wages are expected to rise to offset expected price hikes."
One of the biggest uncertainties revolves around Covid-19. Cuba has been reasonably successful with the control of the virus and has reopened to visitors from abroad who are tested upon arrival and are subject to quarantine if infected.
Panelists agreed that until Covid is tamed, vaccines are accepted by most travelers and the Cuban currency is normalized that it will take six to eight months until a sense of normalcy is felt about travel to Cuba and the uptick in travel takes off.