Tour operators last week decried the U.S. State Department's
latest Cuba travel warning as baseless and yet another example of the kind of
blatant political posturing by the Trump administration that is starting to
take a toll on Cuba bookings.
The State Department warning followed reports of mysterious
health attacks on U.S. diplomats, which led to a reduction in U.S. embassy staff
in Havana and the expulsion last week of 15 staff at Cuba's recently reopened
embassy in Washington.
Still, few expected the travel warning, because no one had
cited evidence of attacks on tourists.
"It was completely unfounded," complained
InsightCuba president Tom Popper, who was in Havana when the State Department
issued the warning. "We knew something was coming once the story broke
about the symptoms that the embassy officials were experiencing."
Popper was in Cuba at the time to attend a meeting organized
by Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel, or Respect, a relatively new coalition of
150 travel companies and organizations created in December. The group was
holding its first get-together in Cuba when the news broke.
"In following the story -- and being in close
communication with the Cuban government, and based on what I know -- it's not
an attack that was perpetrated by the Cubans," Popper said. "It's
just not in their DNA, and if they were to do something, they would have done
it in the last 50 years when relations were at their worst."
He continued, "We were definitely surprised by the
travel warning announcement. We really all kind of sighed in disbelief and
thought it was an overreach, because there's no proof that any American traveler
is at any risk because of what's happening."
The Cuba travel warning, issued on Sept. 29, advises U.S.
citizens not to travel to Cuba following reports that over the past several
months, numerous employees at the U.S. Embassy in Havana had been targeted in
sonic attacks that produced physical symptoms that included hearing loss,
dizziness, headaches, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping.
"Because our personnel's safety is at risk, and we are
unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also
be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba," the warning stated.
"We were definitely surprised by the travel warning announcement. We really all kind of sighed in disbelief and thought it was an overreach." -- Tom Popper, InsightCuba
It reported that attacks had occurred in U.S. diplomatic
residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens. The State Department has not
released the names of those hotels, something that tour operators and U.S.-Cuba
trade advocates have asked it to provide.
Four days after the travel warning was issued, President
Trump expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, a move that was widely seen
as another step backward in relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Improved U.S.-Cuba relations during the Obama presidency
ultimately led to opening up travel between the two countries. That resulted in
a boom in Cuba's tourism industry as Americans flocked to what had previously
been an off-limits destination.
But now tour operators, suppliers and the numerous vendors
they work with on the ground in Cuba are becoming increasingly nervous as they
watch the Trump administration chip away at the progress that was made. Many of
them have invested heavily in a tourism industry they hoped would continue to
Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, said
that when it comes to imposing stricter travel regulations for Cuba, the
administration doesn't "want to do it in a very public, open way, because
it's not popular. So, they're chipping away. They remove a travel category
here, they ban hotels that are run by the [Cuban military] there. Now there's a
travel [warning] that gets everyone nervous. So they're small steps at making
it more difficult and creating an environment of uncertainty and of fear. And,
unfortunately, that seems to be their strategy right now."
Since June, tour operators with Cuba programs have been
dealing with what Manny Kopstein, founder of Cuba Travel Adventures Group,
described as a "triple whammy" of setbacks with regard to Cuba
travel, starting with President Trump's decision to reverse several hallmarks
of President Obama's Cuba policy, including individual people-to-people travel
That was followed by Hurricane Irma, which took a toll on
Cuba and resulted in a Sept. 19 travel warning advising U.S. citizens about the
risks of travel there while the island nation recovers. Then came the Sept. 29
travel warning regarding the attacks on embassy workers.
What's more, Kopstein said the administration has taken
further steps to make travel to Cuba more difficult in an effort to appease a
Cuban-American lobby that would like to see stricter restrictions placed on the
"I think they have not gone far enough to please the
Florida lobby, because the Florida lobby of Cuban-Americans see all the holes
in [the recent tightening of Cuba travel] restrictions, how weak they are,"
"They were more pronouncement than having teeth to
really restrict American travel to Cuba. And that upsets the lobby, and they
want more. To me, it is very much trumped up for the United States government
to issue back-to-back warnings."
So far, operators have been able to maintain existing
bookings to Cuba by explaining the situation on the ground to their clients and
assuring them that it remains safe to travel there. Even so, they have seen a
slowdown in future bookings.
"What we personally are experiencing is a dramatic
slowdown in interest by Americans to go to Cuba right now," Kopstein said.
"I expect it will pick up in the next week or two or three when the waters
are calmer, but we are seeing a 50% falloff from last year's bookings at this
time for the most heavily booked time in Cuba, which is middle-December to the
end of February."
Operators expressed concerns not only for their own business
but for the livelihood of Cubans who depend on U.S. travelers to support their
hospitality-based enterprises. Yet they remained optimistic that tensions will
subside and travel will rebound.
Asked if they worry that Trump might ultimately ban travel
to Cuba, operators said that doesn't appear to be the aim. The consensus is
that once things simmer down a bit, travel to Cuba will be back to normal.
However, if the administration did decide to pull the rug
out from under them with an all-out ban, "it would be Armageddon,"
Popper said. "For InsightCuba, it would essentially end 17 years of doing
this, and the effects would reverberate to the local people in Cuba."