So Can We Still Visit Cuba, or…?

In March of 2017, I stood outside Estadio Latinoamericano, Cuba’s national baseball stadium, with a man named Carlos. We talked about baseball, how he was glad to see Cuban players reach the MLB, we talked about parties along The Malecón, and we talked about America.

Carlos was excited by the amount of tourists coming in from the States. He thought the so-called “thaw” was good for the island, both for the purchasing power tourism produces, and for all the conversations between people (like the one we were having right then) that it would create. He was full of hope.

What a difference two years has made.

In June of that year, President Trump vowed to “cancel” President Obama’s loosened Cuba restrictions. It took some time, but he has made good on that promise. As of last week’s press release from the United States Department of the Treasury, it just got a whole lot more complicated for the average American to go chat Yankees and Red Sox with Carlos.

According to the new regulations, Americans can no longer travel under the “people-to-people” category, the most common visa, which is traditionally used by tour groups. Meanwhile, cruise ships (which have accounted for nearly 30,000 more American visitors to Cuba this year than planes) are now outright banned from letting Americans enter the country, while private boats and planes will be unable to port or land, unless awarded authorization.

To be clear, Americans will still be able to visit Cuba. You can still reach the island on one of the 11 other visa categories; unless you’re headed there for a very specific purpose — as a journalist, scientist, professional athlete, etc. — you’ll be using the “support for the Cuban People” visa. Anyone who booked a trip under the “people-to-people” category before June 5th will be grandfathered into the new system, and is allowed to travel under that visa, assuming they can show a receipt for their flight or lodging. But visitors planning to reach Cuba on cruise liners will simply have to make their peace with a new destination (Virgin Voyages, for instance, is now rerouting to Tulum).

All these moving parts sow uncertainty. The tourists willing to brave hurdles to go to Cuba have largely already visited, and were pretty much allowed to do whatever they wanted. I went to the beach, played pick-up baseball in a sandlot on Ernest Hemingway’s former country estate, and drank too many mojitos. Americans traveling going forward, on the “support for the Cuban people” visa, will have to stick to an itinerary. Which means full days of planned activities at businesses and cultural centers. That’s well and good for a trip operator like ViaHero, which just adjusts its itineraries accordingly, but it means less freedom and less wandering for you. A diluted experience, in my opinion.

Pair those limitations with the cruise-ship ban, and the issue is compounded. Americans can now only fly to Cuba, and fewer Americans will want to visit the island. Routes that were humming along a few years ago (JFK-Havana, Fort Lauderdale-Havana) will either cut back accordingly, or have to raise ticket prices to keep up.

Which leads us to the Cubans themselves, left completely in the rain. They’ve already caught the short end of the stick during Trump’s tenure, most notably when the administration capped remittances (the amount of money Cuban Americans can send home to relatives) at $1,000 every three months. Under Obama, there were no limitations in the amount of money or times one could send money home to friends or family. And now they can expect less money flowing into casa particulares. Trump and his acolytes will claim Cuba had this coming, and that restrictions send a message to a government acting with more bravado in the Western Hemisphere since the States turned soft under Obama.

But more likely, Trump is worried about 2020, and currying favor with the conservative Cuban Americans who will help him carry Florida. If that means dusting off an archaic embargo system with a nation just 90 miles away, that’s what he’s going to do.

If you want to visit Cuba, we still recommend doing so. It’s a beautiful country with hospitable people, and if nothing else, those ’50s Chevy’s are now not going anywhere. Make sure to stay at an Airbnb or casa particular, select the correct visa category, book a flight with JetBlue, American or Delta, and shop at businesses not controlled by the military (a full list of banned business can be found here).

A few years from now, I hope, this article will be in need of serious revision.