Preview 2020: Policy

When it comes to Cuba travel policy over the past five years, it's safe to assume that anything is possible. Next year is no exception.

The Trump administration already eliminated two of the main ways Americans had been visiting Cuba: on cruises and via the people-to-people category of legal travel.

Travel companies offering Cuba itineraries can only hope that 2020 won't mean the final blow for Cuba tourism. But the current administration is nothing if not unpredictable.

William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University's School of Public Affairs, said there are ways Washington could make travel to Cuba more difficult. It could, for example, tighten requirements to qualify for a license for the remaining legal categories of travel, including "support for the Cuban people," the one that most tour operators now use.

"These categories are broader today than they have been in the past; they could be narrowed again," LeoGrande said. "I suspect we will see some additional travel restrictions, but the impact on Cuba is likely to be small, because so few people other than Cuban Americans are traveling now."

Tour operators, however, have so far managed to tailor their tours to comply with ever-changing rules and restrictions around Cuba, and they have no reason to think 2020 will be different.

A Cuba street scene. David Lee, CEO of Cultural Cuba, said the tour company is already having its best-ever first quarter in 2020.
A Cuba street scene. David Lee, CEO of Cultural Cuba, said the tour company is already having its best-ever first quarter in 2020.

David Lee, CEO of Cultural Cuba, said that according to his sources in the Department of Treasury, "there won't be further restrictions" on travel to Cuba because "everything they thought about doing they've done at this point."
But he added, "Can that change? Of course."

Yet, despite all the policy changes made so far, Lee thinks 2020 will be a banner year. He said Cultural Cuba is already having its best-ever first quarter.

"Demand isn't down in terms of desire to travel to Cuba. Confusion might be up, because every few months an announcement is made," Lee said.

Given the constant flux, he said, 2020 offers travel advisors an opportunity to demonstrate their value.

"These places aren't cookie-cutter and straightforward," he said. "But it's still just as easy to get to. There is the constant need for reeducating travel advisors, who we do most of our business with, to help educate their clients. Every time something changes, it requires another round of explanation of how this affects your travel.


Meanwhile, advocates of inbound U.S. travel scored a major victory in December when Brand USA, the nation's tourism marketing arm, was reauthorized by Congress.

But it is unlikely the renewal will be enough to turn around the four-year slide in the U.S. share of the global travel market.

If inbound travel trends continue into 2020 and beyond, that share is projected to fall to 10.4% by 2023, down from 13.7% in 2015.

To reverse the trajectory, the U.S. Travel Association will focus in 2020 on getting lawmakers behind policies that make travel to the U.S. easier, including adding more countries, such as Brazil and Israel, to the Visa Waiver Program; cutting down on visa wait times; expanding biometric technology at airports; and inserting travel facilitation policy into trade agreements. The group will also advocate for a resolution to the current trade war with China, from which tourism dropped 5.5% in 2019.

"We want to see a reduction of disputes with countries, and we want to see free trade agreements that can help grow travel," said Tori Emerson Barnes, U.S. Travel's executive vice president of public affairs and policy.

But 2020 brings concerns for domestic travel, as well: a possible economic slowdown, a typical election-year travel stall and ignorance of Real ID requirements.

U.S. Travel has been engaging policymakers to address an awareness deficit with Real ID laws, which next year will require domestic flyers who lack passports to present state-issued Real ID driver's licenses or identification cards with new security standards. A U.S. Travel study found that not only do 72% of Americans not have Real ID-compliant IDs but that 57% don't know that there is an Oct. 1 deadline to get one.

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