Collin Laverty is the president of Cuba Educational Travel, which specializes in arranging exchange programs and people-to-people travel for Americans to Cuba. Laverty has visited the island more than 100 times, and his company has taken more than 12,000 travelers to Cuba since 2013. Laverty spoke with senior editor Danny King.
Q: What is the potential impact of President Trump's intention to reverse the Obama administration's decision to allow individual people-to-people travel to Cuba?
A: If they go on a witch hunt and make it broader than the one or two companies that have clear linkages to the Cuban military, it could potentially freeze U.S. travel to Cuba.
That means no government officials going down there, no priests and nuns going down there for religious conventions. The interpretation is going to be super important, and we know members of Congress [from] South Florida are going to push for the broadest interpretation.
Q: How do you think the policy will impact Marriott International and its entry into Cuba last year via the Four Points by Sheraton Havana?
A: Trump suggested that they didn't want to hurt U.S. businesses that are already there. So one could imagine a scenario where the Four Points can still accept American travelers. The same could be said for the [Hotel] Santa Isabel [which is slated to join Marriott's Luxury Collection]. It'll be interesting to see if they can get grandfathered in.
Q: What other Cuba hotels could be most impacted?
A: During the last 10 years, the most popular hotels with American travelers have been the Parque Central, Hotel Nacional, Hotel Saratoga, the Melia Habana and the Melia Cohiba. Cubanacan [which is controlled by the Ministry of Tourism] has the Parque Central and both Melia properties. One would assume their hotels would not be affected, but it's really not clear what's going to happen under this arrangement.
Q: Could the policy affect hotel visitations from Cubans themselves?
A: Yes. During the summer, the biggest source of hotel occupants are Cubans themselves. A huge part of beach resort demand are Cuban-Americans who come from Miami and take their whole family in Cuba to the resorts. A lot of them pay in cash.
It's so complicated. People don't understand the difference between a visa and a travel license, and then you add the big, bad bogeyman of the Cuban military. What if you inadvertently go to some store operated by the Cuban military. Are you going to get fined? Jail time?
Q: Have you visited the Kempinski in Havana?
A: The facilities are perfect. Their challenge is that they're all Cuban workers who've never worked for a luxury brand, so they're trying to bring them up to speed. But in terms of the location and actual hotel, it's beautiful.
Q: What about the Four Points?
A: They're definitely doing well with Americans, because you had Americans who wanted to make sure they're safe and would be ensured that they would have a hotel room when they got there. [Four Points will] definitely be affected.
Q: Do you believe in Trump's assertion that increased U.S. travel is benefiting the Cuban government far more than Cuban citizens?
A: The narrative is crazy. You're pushing people away from private houses and restaurants and back into hotels. And even the workers there, they are salaried workers making $25 to $30 a month, so they rely on tips and incredible interaction with guests. Americans tend to be the best tippers, so this guy is making $25 a day [in tips].
With Europeans, he makes $5. So it's going to be the average Cubans on the low end of the totem poll who are going to get hurt.