In case you were off the grid yesterday, the Trump administration continued its rollback of 21st-century progress, severely limiting Americans’ ability to travel to Cuba. Where going to the island nation had become commonplace since the Obama administration eased travel restrictions in 2016, getting there is about to get a lot more difficult. And quick weekend trips to Havana will once again be a thing of the past.
So why, exactly, is the government telling us where we can and cannot go? And what does it mean for you, the American traveler? Questions abound this week, and we’ll try and answer as many as we can.
What exactly are these new restrictions?
Most importantly, Donny T and co. are eliminating the commonly used “person-to-person” visa, a favorite of group tours and cruise ships carrying US citizens to Cuba. The visa allowed for tourists to go to Cuba to participate in cultural, educational activities with locals, which, it being Cuba, could mean literally anything from rolling cigars to mixing mojitos. You just couldn’t go to laze on the beach. The ban of this popular visa means means that, for now, cruise ships won’t be able to make port stops in Cuba, and travel companies offering trips there will have to cease offering trips to Americans.
The government is also prohibiting personal aircraft and watercraft from going to Cuba without special permission. That includes yachts, private jets, prop planes, cigarette boats, and jetskis, if you’ve got one with a particularly long range. This affects several resorts in the Florida Keys, which offered day trips to Havana as part of special packages. It also affects anyone with Sonny Crockett dreams of piloting a cigarette boat with a smoldering brunette to dance the night away in a salsa club. Though Sonny, he never plays by the rules, anyway.
Why is the government doing this? I thought this was America!
It IS America! But just like the government has laws telling us we can’t litter or jaywalk, so is it able to restrict countries where we can travel. According to a statement from US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the new restrictions were a result of Cuba playing “a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up US adversaries in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela, undermining the rule of law.”
Will airlines stop flying to Cuba now?
No, commercial flights from the US to Cuba are still perfectly legal. But the number and frequency of flights will likely drop, since fewer people will be going.
Who will be able to go to Cuba?
Anybody! Anybody, provided they fit into one of 12 categories:
- Family visits
- Government business (US or foreign)
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research or professional meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances
- Athletic and other competitions
- Support for Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutions
- Importation or transmission of information
- Authorized export transactions
So school groups, Doctors without Borders, mission trips, sports teams, jazz choirs, and journalists can go. That’s journalists, not “influencers” with 100,000 Instagram followers.
Anyone visiting family in Cuba is also permitted, or anyone doing research for a school or work project. Ditto for people with legitimate business in Cuba. The door’s not completely closed, but you’ll need to get creative to find a way in.
I already booked a trip to Cuba, can I still go?
Yes! To avoid a complete logistical cluster and potentially millions of lost dollars to the travel industry, you’re still allowed to go to Cuba if you purchased some sort of travel product prior to June 5, 2019. That could be purchasing a group travel package, an airline ticket, paying for a hotel, etc. If you haven’t paid for anything yet, though, you’ll probably need to change your plans.
I booked a cruise that stops in Cuba. Will it still stop there?
Likely not. Cruise lines must now obtain special licenses from the US government to stop in Cuban ports. Most big cruise lines saw this coming a nautical mile away and have begun the process of getting those licenses already, but whether they’re approved by the time of your cruise is anyone’s guess.
Cruise lines will likely replace your Cuban stop with a stop somewhere else, like St. Thomas or Grand Cayman or one of many ports in Jamaica. If hitting yet another straw market wasn’t exactly what you signed up for, you’ll need to contact your cruise line to see what its policy on cancellation is. If you purchased travel insurance, which you always should, it should cover itinerary changes and you can get your money back.
Will we ever be able to go to Cuba easily again?
That depends. The next presidential administration can change the rules right back, if it so desires. The ephemeral nature of executive branch policy is one of the luxuries we have as Americans — since we don’t have a dictator that sticks around until he dies. That said, whether or not the people-to-people visa is ever reinstated depends very much on who our next president is, and there’s only one way to determine that: voting, another luxury we have as Americans.
But for now, and until at least 2021, getting to Cuba is going to be a lot more restrictive. And, while not impossible, certainly not the free and easy experience we had up until this week.