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Uncertainty abounds as Trump again shifts Cuba travel policies

As the Trump administration’s policies toward Cuba once
again sow confusion and uncertainty among suppliers and consumers alike, travel
providers are at once benefiting from a rush of bookings while also fearing
the possibility of severe Cuba travel restrictions.

Speaking in Miami last month, national security advisor John
Bolton said the Treasury Department “will implement further regulatory
changes to restrict nonfamily travel to Cuba.” 

The Treasury Department confirmed shortly thereafter that it
would implement “Treasury-specific changes to nonfamily travel and other
regulations in the coming months via amendments to [its] Cuban Assets Control
Regulations.” 

But that isn’t the only change in Cuba policy that is threatening
to impact travel. Companies doing business in Cuba are now faced with possibly
being sued for restitution for property seized after the Cuban Revolution. This
month, Carnival Corp. became the first defendant under the Title III provision
of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which allows U.S. citizens or entities to sue
over property seized by the Cuban government starting in 1959. 

Title III had been waived by the last three presidents, but
the Trump administration began enforcing it in April.  

In Carnival Corp.’s case, an American claiming to be the
original owner of the Havana Docks Corp., which multiple cruise lines use when
visiting the island’s capital, sued Carnival because it was the first cruise
line to do so. 

So far, no other travel companies have been named in
Helms-Burton lawsuits, although the Associated Press reported this month that a
man claiming to be the original owner of Cuba‘s main airport and its national
airline as well as three hotels in Havana is planning to sue several airlines,
including Aeromexico and Latam as well the Spain-based Melia hotel company.

How much teeth any current and potential Helms-Burton lawsuits
have is unclear. 

William LeoGrande, an American University professor who has
written extensively about U.S.-Cuba relations, said that Title III has an
exemption for transactions involving expropriated property linked to travel

“It says ‘trafficking’ does not include ‘transactions
and uses of property incident to lawful travel to Cuba, to the extent that such
transactions and uses of property are necessary to the conduct of such travel,'”
LeoGrande said. “Carnival has already invoked this passage in its defense
against the suit filed against it, but we will have to see how the courts
interpret ‘incident to lawful travel.'”

ASTA made clear its opposition to the Helms-Burton enactment
before it happened, sending a letter in March to Florida senators Marco Rubio
and Rick Scott (both Republicans) expressing its concerns, “especially as
it relates to the operations of our cruise line and airline partners there.”

Citing research from Phocuswright, ASTA said U.S. agencies
sold 44% of airline tickets purchased by consumers and more than two-thirds of
all cruises, the primary methods of transportation to Cuba. “It follows
then that policy changes that increase legal and financial uncertainty in
travel suppliers’ business operations risk harm not only to those companies but
to a broad swath [of] U.S. travel advisors, as well,” ASTA wrote.

Unintended effects

While the threat of new travel restrictions is of concern to
travel advisors and tour operators, it has also prompted a surge in Cuba bookings.

“The John Bolton speech … has seemingly energized the
traveling public,” said InsightCuba president Tom Popper, who reported
that his company had seen a 23% increase in traffic to its website
week-over-week following the speech and that bookings were up 18%.

Classic Journeys founder Edward Piegza also said that Cuba inquiries and bookings were up in
the wake of Bolton’s remarks, which he attributed to the fact that prior
changes to Cuba travel regulations took several months to take effect and booked
travel was grandfathered in. 

“Both combine to create additional demand for travel to
Cuba that is scheduled, if not fully completed, sooner rather than later,”
he said. 

Joe Pcolinsky, manager of partner relations for Frosch, said
he has not yet seen a bump in Cuba requests in the immediate aftermath of the
announcement. He attributed that to the vagueness of Bolton’s comments, which
might have “tempered” reactions. But he said that ultimately, more
restrictions might be a boon to travel advisors.

“Should the administration begin to outline specific
regulatory changes,” he said, “then in my opinion, we might start to
see a bit more in the way of travelers looking to get a trip to Cuba in before
these changes take effect or seeking help from a travel advisor rather than
trying to navigate the red tape on their own.”

LeoGrande said it is too soon to know how extensive the
restrictions will be, adding that the administration might not yet have decided
the extent of the restrictions.

“When they promise to curtail ‘veiled tourism,’ I
assume they mean killing people-to-people travel, as George W. Bush did,”
he said. “Whether they go further and eliminate some travel categories,
restrict academic travel to kill study abroad and academic exchanges, as they
also did under Bush, and require specific licenses for most travel all remains
to be seen.”

Pcolinsky, for one, is optimistic. He said he believes that
the goal of the Trump administration is to “divert funds from making it
into the hands of the various arms of the Cuban government who control tourism.”

“In my opinion, any regulatory changes are not meant to
completely stop tourism to Cuba,” he said. “They would be implemented
to make it more difficult for the Cuban government to directly benefit from
tourism to Cuba.”