The Trump administration's decision last week to ban all people-to-people travel to Cuba left tour operators scrambling to reinvent their products, while CLIA announced that U.S. cruise lines were abruptly canceling or rerouting all Cuba itineraries for the foreseeable future.
Airlines, meanwhile, said last week that they were still reviewing the new restrictions and declined to comment other than to affirm that they would comply with the new rules. However, OAG senior analyst John Grant wrote in an email that the new restrictions would present a challenge for carriers, creating "a number of airlines that will now have spare capacity available."
U.S. airlines have seen relatively consistent bookings to Cuba of between 130,000 and 170,000 passengers per month since September 2017. The two biggest carriers in the market are American, which flew close to 62,000 passengers between the U.S. and Cuba in March, and JetBlue, which flew 45,000.
The cruise cancellations, which will affect some 800,000 passengers a year, came just three years after the first U.S. cruise ship in 50 years docked in Havana. Cruising has since become an increasingly popular way to visit Cuba. In 2018, of the 4.75 million international visitors to Cuba, approximately 800,000 arrived by ships belonging to 17 cruise lines, a 29% increase over 2017, according to Cuba's Ministry of Tourism.
William LeoGrande, an American University professor who has written extensively about U.S.-Cuba relations, said,
"These new regulations completely abolish people-to-people travel, just as George W. Bush did in 2003. It will cut U.S. travel to Cuba by at least two-thirds."
Lori Osgood, a Cruise Planners travel advisor in Jacksonville, Fla., said she had clients booked on the Norwegian Sun who went to Nassau in the Bahamas instead of Havana on June 5.
Norwegian informed passengers of the change with an announcement on the ship.
"I sell a fair amount of Cuba and am saddened that many of my clients who were planning to travel there will not have the opportunity to do so, at least not in the foreseeable future," Osgood said.
Tour operators were not as harshly impacted, since the new rules grandfathered in any that had booked people-to-people travel prior to June 5, enabling them to complete their trips.
Tour operators do business under general licenses that give them blanket authorization to sell travel under any of 12 permissible categories of Cuba travel. The now-banned people-to-people travel was part of the educational category.
But the rest of that category as well as the 11 other exemptions still exist and can be used by operators.
The largest tour operators, such as the Globus family of brands, were already informing potential U.S. clients that they could not book new Cuba tours. Intrepid said that it was looking into other, compliant options for Americans to travel to Cuba. However, many Cuba-specific operators that offer smaller, custom tours said they would be able to operate many of their itineraries under categories of authorized travel to Cuba other than people-to-people. One such category, for example, is "support for the Cuban people," which many operators already use.
Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, said that after the shock of first hearing the news, he and his team realized they could modify their tours and trips to be compliant with new regulations.
"It's a very significant development and highly unfortunate, and it will impact lots of travelers and people's ability to go to Cuba," Popper said. "The silver lining is that the administration could have taken the regulations a lot further and impacted all 12 [authorized] categories of travel."
Other operators, including Cultural Cuba, Cuba Candela, Ya'lla Tours and Cuba Educational Travel, all said they were already operating tours under various categories including humanitarian, religious, academic, professional meetings and support for the Cuban people.
Holbrook Travel CEO Andrea Holbrook said about 70% of the company's groups travel to Cuba under the people-to-people category and that Holbrook would likely look to shift those groups to other categories of travel.
Sailing to Havana no more
It was not clear why cruises to Cuba were not grandfathered like previously booked tours were, but the new rules ended the three-year opening to one of the Caribbean's most intriguing ports.
After U.S.-Cuba cruises resumed in 2016, nearly 20 cruise lines laid plans to go there, including major brands owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Carnival Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.
While most cruise lines that stop in Havana have the ability to swap it out for another Caribbean port, they will lose a call that is unique in its appeal to Americans, who had long been banned from visiting Cuba under a Cold War-era trade embargo.
Smaller lines that have more extensive Cuban voyages visiting secondary cities such as Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba will have to develop new itineraries to comply with the rules.
The latest Cuba crackdown comes after national security advisor John Bolton and others in the Trump administration decided to put economic pressure on Cuba as part of a larger strategy to drive Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro from power.
In an April 17 foreign policy speech in Miami, Bolton foreshadowed the new restrictions, but specifics about how and whether cruises would be affected weren't known until June 4.
The rules now subject cruises to the authority of the Commerce Department, which said it was "removing passenger and recreational vessels from eligibility for temporary sojourn to Cuba."
The rules further state that temporary sojourn applications "for private and corporate aircraft, cruise ships, sailboats, fishing vessels and other similar aircraft and vessels will generally be denied."
Previously, Treasury had been the primary agency interpreting allowable travel to Cuba under the long-standing embargo, but that agency said on June 5 that it was amending its regulations to "highlight" the Commerce requirements.
Regardless of the specifics, the policy seems to put at an end cruises to Cuba from U.S. ports at least until the power struggle in Venezuela is resolved or presidential leadership changes in the U.S.
Theresa Scalzitti, vice president of sales and marketing for Cruise Planners, said she was advising travel agents to ease client concerns about upcoming cruise travel that involves Cuba by telling them any port they visit will be enjoyable and that modern cruise ships are themselves destinations.
"We would definitely love to continue to promote and sell Cuba cruises," Scalzitti said. "But at this moment in time, we will have to abide by whatever the U.S. government is mandating. The beauty of our industry is that ... there are a lot of other amazing destinations to visit. We will get through this."
Carnival Cruise Line said guests on the Carnival Sensation's June 3 sailing would call on Cozumel in Mexico rather than Havana.
Royal Caribbean International said departures on June 4 and 5 with Cuba on their itineraries would be similarly rerouted.
Norwegian Cruise Line, which rerouted its Norwegian Sun to Nassau, said in a letter to travel advisors, "We are so sorry for this very last-minute change. We had no prior notice and were therefore unable to plan accordingly."
Senior editors Robert Silk and Tom Stieghorst contributed to this report.