Latest Cuba restrictions force tour operators to adjust

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A tour group in Havana.
A tour group in Havana. Photo Credit: Action Sports/Shutterstock

The Trump administration's decision to ban commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuban destinations other than Havana could cause complications for tour operators. However, where needed, operators will have the option to use charter flights as an alternative. 

The latest restrictions, which take effect during the second week of December, will put an end to daily American Airlines flights from Miami to the Cuban cities of Camaguey, Hoguin, Santa Clara, Santiago and Varadero. JetBlue will end flights from Fort Lauderdale to Camaguey, Holguin and Santa Clara. 

In a letter requesting the Department of Transportation to issue the new rules, secretary of state Mike Pompeo wrote that the purpose of restrictions is to strengthen the economic consequences of the Cuban government's "ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its support for Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela."

The restrictions don't directly affect all Cuba tour operators. For example, Cuba Candela flies its clients in and out of Havana only, said CEO Chad Olin. 

But the new rules will force sister tour operators InsightCuba and Friendly Planet to make adjustments, said InsightCuba president Tom Popper. In the past few months, he explained, Friendly Planet’s "Captivating Cuba" tour and InsightCuba's "Classic Cuba" tour began departing Cuba from the north central city of Santa Clara. Now those itineraries will go back to using departure flights from Havana. As a result, guests will leave Cienfuegos on the last day of the tour to head back to Havana for the return flight. 

"What's great is that none of the tour programming needs to change," Popper said. 

Another InsightCuba tour, "Undiscovered Cuba," departs the island from the eastern city of Holguin, which is much farther from Havana than is Santa Clara. For that itinerary, the company is looking into replacing commercial air service with charter service, Popper said. 

The new restrictions, Popper said, will have an impact on Cuban-Americans visiting family outside of Havana. But for InsightCuba, using charter service from Holguin to Miami "will represent virtually no disruption to passengers."

Prior to the decision by the Obama administration to restore commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba in 2016, all flights between the two countries were operated via charter. The onset of commercial service put an end to many of those charter flights. Now, charters could have a resurgence to satisfy demand for travel by Cuban-Americans to secondary Cuban markets, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. 

While charter flights will remain available, there will be inconveniences. Charter operations to Cuba, Kavulich said, are more expensive than commercial flights. And the operators historically haven't accepted credit cards. 

Other inconveniences include the inability to check luggage through to a final destination, lack of access to frequent-flyer programs and flight schedules that aren't as likely to be synchronized as they would be with a commercial carrier selling single-itinerary travel.  

Beyond that, Kavulich said, many travelers are simply more comfortable flying on familiar airlines. 

"All of that adds to the anxiety factor, which, of course, is the goal of the Trump administration -- to increase the level of anxiety to the point where the non-family members will go somewhere else," he said.

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