Tour operators: Cuba travel warning driven by Trump's political posturing

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The U.S. embassy in Havana. Employees here were among those targeted in attacks that prompted a Cuba travel warning.

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 flourish.

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 to Cuba.

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 Cuban government.

"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," Kopstein said.

"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."

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