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In one of the more consequential days for U.S. relations with Cuba over the last couple of years, President Donald J. Trump on Friday announced his plans on placing new restrictions on travel to the island nation.
He reversed some of the changes that former President Barack Obama and Cuba implemented in 2016 — but not all.
Among the elements rolled back the U.S. will prohibit Americans from undertaking individual people-to-people trips to Cuba, and restrictions will be placed on doing business with hotels and attractions run by elements of the Cuban government.
It is still unclear whether all individual — as opposed to group — travel to Cuba will be banned, or whether just individuals traveling in the people-to-people category, which is one of 12 U.S.-approved categories, will be prohibited.
It is a somewhat confusing situation given a lack of written guidelines on the new rules. So here is an FAQ on everything we know so far about how President Trump’s new regulations will impact travel to Cuba for consumers and the travel industry.
Why is this happening?
The Trump administration has busied itself with trying to dismantle numerous Obama administration accomplishments, ranging from environmental regulations to health care reform, and the U.S. detente with Cuba was on the Trump hit list.
In a speech Friday, Trump said that putting financial pressure on the Cuban government is the only way to compel it to cease human rights abuses and institute democratic elections in coming years. Cuban President Raul Castro has previously announced he expects to step down from his role in 2018.
There is a counter-argument, though, that an influx of U.S. businesses and travelers could speed democratic changes in Cuba rather than persisting with an embargo that for decades has never worked.
When will these new regulations go into effect?
The U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) released a document Friday that states “OFAC expects to issue its regulatory amendments in the coming months. The announced changes do not take effect until the new regulations are issued.” So things will remain the same until at least 30 days after OFAC publishes its revised regulations.
President Trump called this a “ban on travel.” Is it?
No. There have been no changes to regulations that permit U.S. flights and cruises to Cuba.
How will the new regulations affect travelers?
Individual people-to-people travel will become illegal under the new regulations, while group travel will remain permitted. It is unclear, however, if other forms of individual travel to Cuba would be barred.
“Individual people-to-people travel is educational travel that: (i) does not involve academic study pursuant to a degree program; and (ii) does not take place under the auspices of an organization that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact,” reads the OFAC document.
What If I already have a people-to people trip booked?
If you’ve already booked an individual people-to-people trip, or book one before the new regulations get announced, you can still go on the trip. Travelers can still travel under all types of travel that were legal before — although the auditing of these types of trips could become more stringent.
Beyond people-to people, the other 11 categories of legal travel to Cuba will remain accessible to travelers and will not be affected by the new regulations.
Will this have any effect on U.S. airlines, and my booking flights to Cuba?
Nothing will change for airlines or consumers regarding the booking of air travel to Cuba. However, if there is decreased demand from the policy changes, the airlines may cut capacity even further than they already have done.
How might cruises to Cuba be impacted?
Cruises should be able to operate almost exactly as they do now. Cruise lines already offer authorized tours on land, and those will still be approved under the new policy. What’s still unclear is whether passengers will be allowed to choose the option to explore on their own when they’re on the ground in Cuba, as they can now. Cruise lines will also need to pay attention to the list of entities that are ruled off-limits according to the forthcoming regulations and avoid doing business with them.
Where can I stay if I want to travel to Cuba?
One wrinkle is that it appears transactions with certain elements of the Cuban travel industry, particularly hotels and attractions operated by the Cuban military’s Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A. (GAESA) Gaviota division, will be forbidden under the new rules. The Department of State will provide a list of these unauthorized entities soon.
Americans can stay in Cuba in a private home, also known as a casa particular, but they likely can’t stay in a hotel. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that individual Americans will be able to travel to Cuba under a “Support for the Cuban people category” but must stay in a private accommodation like an Airbnb.
Private accommodations are easily bookable on Airbnb, which has operated in Cuba since April 2015. Airbnb says it has 22,000 listings in Cuba.
How will U.S. hotels operating in Cuba be affected?
The primary foundation of Trump’s policy is that it has been designed to prevent the flow of U.S. money to the Cuban government and military. So, because the majority of hotels are owned by the state, often through the Cuban military arm known as GAESA, that means American citizens can’t stay in any state-owned hotels. And presumably, they can’t spend any money with those hotels, or in state-owned restaurants, either.
Any U.S. hotel company looking to do business in Cuba would find it extremely difficult without entering into a deal with GAESA, and that’s now prohibited. The unit owns a large swath of real estate throughout the island.
The Gaviota division of GAESA, which acts as a tourism company, signed management deals with Starwood Hotels in March 2016 to operate three hotels in Cuba. Marriott acquired Starwood in September 2016, but both companies received treasury approval to do business in Cuba. Only one of those hotels is currently being managed by Marriott — the former Hotel Quinta Avenida, which is now a Four Points by Sheraton hotel. The Hotel Inglaterra, which is a national landmark, is being refurbished into a Luxury Collection hotel and Starwood’s website says it is scheduled to reopen on December 31, 2019. The Hotel Santa Isabel is also slated to be refurbished into a Luxury Collection hotel but its opening has been delayed.
While OFAC said that deals in place with military entities prior to the new regulations might be permitted on a case-by-case basis, the future of Marriott’s two planned Luxury Collection properties is still an open question at the moment, as is its current Four Points by Sheraton.
How do I know if I’m spending money with a state-run business while I’m there?
One of the biggest question marks related to this new policy is how it will be enforced. Julia E. Sweig, Cuba expert and author of Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know said, “This is all just completely untenable. The porousness between the state-run and private economy is very significant. It’s very hard to go to Cuba and not touch something the state touches as well.”
Sweig added, “The chilling effect [of this policy] is not so much in terms of how Americans go but what it is they’re allowed to do and not do and what kind of audits they have to provide to the Treasury Department. That’s the chilling effect. Will they impose a daily dollar per diem on how much you can spend? But not have restrictions on how many souvenirs like cigars and rum that you can bring back? They don’t know the answer.”
In other words, Americans traveling to Cuba will have to be very mindful of where they’re spending their money, and definitely hold onto any receipts.
Skift will update this FAQ as additional facts about the policy changes become known.
Skift editors Deanna Ting and Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.