Traveling to Cuba just got tougher for Americans. The U.S. departments of Treasury and Commerce announced new restrictions Tuesday that include travel bans for cruise ships and group tours from the U.S. effective Wednesday, June 5.
The rules target the primary ways Americans travel to the island nation, which was closed to most U.S. travelers for decades until former President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions in 2016.
The Trump Administration says the rules are part of an effort to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of the communist government amid claims it is backing U.S. adversaries in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“Cuba remains communist, and the United States, under the previous administration, made too many concessions to one of our historically most aggressive adversaries,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in a statement released Tuesday. “The Trump Administration recognizes the threat Cuba’s government poses in the region, and the Commerce Department is acting to limit commercial activity that provides revenue for the Cuban regime. Holding other countries accountable remains a focus for this Administration and we will remain vigilant.”
Travelers who booked airfare before June 5 are exempt from the new rules. But cruise ships with scheduled stops in Cuba are already changing their itineraries. The restrictions also include halting corporate and private aircraft traveling to Cuba.
What do the new Cuba travel restrictions do?
The restrictions effectively stop all cruise travel from the U.S. to Cuba, and stop all “people-to-people” group tours, one of 12 visa categories Americans can use to travel to the country. It permits groups of Americans to travel for group educational tours.
The Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) said cruise lines are eliminating all Cuba destinations from their itineraries, affecting nearly 800,000 passengers.
CLIA estimates about 200,000 people have traveled to Cuba on a cruise so far in 2019.
Norwegian Cruise Line issued a statement to customers saying it suspended all stops in Cuba and is modifying all future schedules that included the country.
Royal Caribbean has also suspended all travel to Cuba and is securing new ports. It promised passengers the option of remaining on their cruises with the revised itinerary and a 50% refund, or the option to cancel their cruise and receive a full refund.
Carnival has also begun to change its routes away from Cuba, and promised passengers $100 onboard credit, the chance to change their itinerary and receive $50 onboard credit or the option to cancel their cruise for a full refund.
Travel agencies across South Florida immediately began to feel the pinch of the new rules. Gabriela Consuegra, the manager of Miami travel agency Tocororo Travel, says she let out a sigh when she heard the news of the new restrictions on Wednesday morning.
Over the course of eight years, Consuegra says Tocororo has seen many changes in travel policy to Cuba through two different U.S. administrations.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” she says. “All the time, we have to be alert.”
Consuegra says she is already receiving dozens of questions from clients. Although Tocororo has a large number of clients who book cruises to Cuba, Consuegra believes her agency can survive the financial impact because most of the clientele travel to Cuba on a visa to visit family.
Michael Zuccato, the general manager at Cuba Travel Services, which organizes shore excursions to Cuba, believes the restrictions will have also have an impact on his business.
“Any time you have changes like this it definitely impacts a business,” he says. “That business, from one day to the next is gone.”
In addition to stopping cruises, the new restrictions end “people-to-people” travel visas, which are used by most cruise travelers and group tours.
Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes groups under the “people-to-people” category, expects a short-term decline in business until Americans learn of new ways to travel the Cuba through other visa categories.
“Unfortunately Cuba, and Cuba travel is somewhat of political football,” he said. “You kind of have to wait until the dust settles. Obviously it’s difficult for anyone working in Cuba travel.”
Can Americans still travel to Cuba?
The short answer is yes, Americans can still travel to Cuba, but they face larger barriers to entry.
Many American tourists who traveled under the “support for the Cuban people” category in the visa application––another common choice––will now have to provide an itinerary that includes meetings with local Cubans, attending cultural events and staying at a Cuban family’s home, a “casa particular,” instead of a hotel.
“I think that’s an avenue that many Americans will use to visit the island,” Laverty says. “I sense that we will see a downturn in ‘people-to-people’ travel and we’ll see a lot of Americans travel under the ‘support for the Cuban people’ category.”
Americans with family in Cuba are not impacted by the new restrictions. Americans can still also travel to Cuba for business or humanitarian purposes.
What to do if you have already planned a trip
Tourists who have already planned a trip to Cuba need to check with their cruise line, travel agency or airline to find out if itineraries have changed or been canceled.
Commercial airlines have not been restricted from traveling to the country.
In 2018 there were more than 8,500 flights from the U.S. to Cuba carrying nearly 900,000 passengers, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
“Don’t panic,” Consuegra says. “In all these changes to politics with Cuba, people usually panic and it’s completely normal, but from my side, knowing how things actually work, it’s not always as bad as it may appear.”
Consuegra says as long as travelers have documentation that they booked their trips before June 5, most should still be fine to travel to Cuba.