Travel companies look to reverse Cuba slump

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Cuba unveiled a statue of national hero Jose Marti in front of the Museum of the Revolution this past weekend. It was one of the stops on a media tour of Havana during Cuba Media Day.
Cuba unveiled a statue of national hero Jose Marti in front of the Museum of the Revolution this past weekend. It was one of the stops on a media tour of Havana during Cuba Media Day. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

HAVANA -- Rhetoric from the White House, negative headlines and a State Department travel warning have all contributed to a slump in U.S. travelers visiting Cuba, but officials here on Monday emphasized the message that traveling to Cuba is legal and safe for Americans.

During Cuba Media Day at the Melia Cohiba Hotel organizer Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, said a number of things have formed a "perfect storm" of negative press for Cuba.

It started with unclear messages from the president, who said he was "canceling" President Barack Obama's policies that relaxed travel to Cuba.

Then, Popper said, media coverage following Hurricane Irma made it appear the island was destroyed, but most locales were back on their feet in a matter of days and weeks.

Finally, in September, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Cuba, claiming "sonic attacks" had left Americans injured.

"These headlines, unfortunately and without merit, had a cooling effect on U.S. travel to Cuba," Popper said. However, Cuba Media Day was meant to disseminate information about what Popper called the reality of the situation: "Cuba remains a legal, safe and welcoming destination for U.S. travelers."

One of the topics discussed was the White House's November 2017 release of a list of businesses, including hotels, that are restricted to American travelers because of ties to the Cuban military.

Attorney Lindsey Frank, with the firm Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman, said there has been a good deal of confusion about the restrictions.

"Cuba very much does remain, in fact, a legal place for U.S. travelers to travel, even under current OFAC regulations," he said.

Under the new regulations, Frank said, U.S. citizens can still travel to Cuba on their own, like they could under Obama's individual people-to-people license. Except now, individual travel to the island is done under the Support for the Cuban People category, so long as individuals stay in a private home. They also must engage in the same type of people-to-people activities they were doing prior to the November regulations.

"There really are still many, many opportunities to travel to Cuba, including under this individual category of travel," Frank said.

Group people-to-people travel, like what has been offered by tour operators for some time, is still an option, too, Frank said.

The attorney also addressed the list of restricted hotels. Direct payment from U.S. citizens to those hotels is not permitted, but Frank said U.S. travelers can still stay at the hotels if they use a travel agency with no restrictions (like a Cuban travel agency) to make the arrangements.

Frank also underscored that the travel warning to Cuba does not restrict U.S. travelers from visiting the destination.

"There have been very few substantive changes to the regulations," he said, "and Cuba very much remains a legal place for U.S. travelers."

USTOA president and CEO Terry Dale said it is incumbent upon the media and the travel industry to change Americans' perceptions about traveling to Cuba.

"The message is Cuba is open for business," Dale said. "It's safe, it's legal, it's amazing. ... We have to be diligent [in spreading the word], because a drumbeat is necessary."

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