[UPDATED NOV. 8, 2017]
A little over a month after the Trump administration warned Americans not to visit Cuba because of mysterious sonic attacks, the Treasury on Wednesday published new restrictions on American travel to the island and placed dozens of military-owned hotels and shops off-limits.
Under the new rules, Americans will no longer be permitted to visit Cuba on individual “people-to-people” trips, a popular mode of travel that has fueled a boom in home rentals and family-run restaurants since President Barack Obama loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba two years ago.
They will also be barred from “direct financial transactions” with a long list of restaurants, shops and hotels that form part of the Cuban military’s extensive business empire. They include many properties in Old Havana and the five-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, whose opening last year was expected to usher in a new era of luxury travel.
Bob Guild, the president of Mar Azul Charters, a travel company that has organized trips to Cuba for many years, said the shift under President Trump was “part of a long, long history of cracking down.”
Since the détente in late 2014, travel to Cuba had become “more and more normalized,” Mr. Guild, said, adding, “you could go there for the weekend.”
Now the “war on travel” had returned, he said, adding that several universities had canceled trips booked with Mar Azul in recent weeks.
Still, there are many ways to travel legally to Cuba. People-to-people trips will still be legal, but visitors must travel as part of an organized group, which will make travel more expensive. The rules, announced in June, come into force on Nov. 9, but do not affect travel plans already in process.
Americans should continue to visit, but they must pay close attention to the rules, travel experts said. Here are answers to some questions you may have if you are planning a trip.
Can Americans still visit Cuba? Yes, but it will be harder to go as an independent traveler. People-to-people trips must be undertaken with an organization that puts together full-time programs for travelers, including Cuba Educational Travel, Cuba Cultural Travel and the Center for Cuban Studies.
According to a fact sheet published on Nov. 8 by the Treasury Department, individual travel will still be allowed within 12 categories, including humanitarian and religious travel; family visits; journalistic activity; professional research; and participation in public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions.
Those traveling in these categories will still be able to book a flight and reserve a room online and they will not be required to apply for a specific license. However, they should pursue the activity in Cuba for which their license is granted, whether it be helping a religious group or bringing humanitarian aid, and keep records of their visit for the requisite five years.
What was the State Department’s travel advisory? The State Department in September warned Americans not to travel to Cuba after an alleged series of sonic attacks against United States personnel. Those hurt by the attacks had suffered a variety of symptoms, including hearing loss, brain injury and headaches.
Travel organizers have questioned the dangers posed by the attacks and say the warning has sown confusion. Michael Sykes, the president of Cuba Cultural Travel, said many travelers were “misinterpreting” the State Department warning to mean that they would not be able to get a visa.
Colin Laverty, the president of Cuba Educational Travel, said the advisory was unwarranted. “The U.S. government has a responsibility to make clear to U.S. travelers that Cuba continues to be safe, that these are isolated incidents and there is no risk to Americans traveling to Cuba,” he said.
Do Americans have to heed the travel warning? No. Travel warnings should be taken into account, but are not binding.
What if I need help when I am in Cuba? The State Department has said that, because of a reduction in personnel in Havana, it will be able to help Americans only in emergencies. The government provides emergency telephone numbers and information here.
Where can U.S. citizens stay? The new directive prohibits “direct financial transactions” with military assets on the Cuba Restricted List, which includes dozens of hotels and shops in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Varadero, Baracoa and elsewhere.
American travelers will be channeled toward hotels run by civilian tour organizations, such as Gran Caribe and Cubanacan. There are decent alternatives to the military-owned properties in Havana, but that is not the case in small towns like Baracoa, in eastern Cuba. Americans traveling independently may still book a room in a private house or through Airbnb.
Precisely what constitutes a “direct financial transaction” is also unclear, travel representatives said: Could an American buy a drink in a bar on the restricted list? Probably not. But what if a travel company pays money to Havanatur, the Cuban state travel agency, which in turn buys rooms at a hotel on the restricted list? That is less clear.
Could you take a cruise instead? You could. Carnival and Oceania Cruises offer cruises to Cuba departing from Miami. Other cruise companies offering journeys to Cuba from American ports include Pearl Sea Cruises and a French company, Ponant.
Will anybody keep tabs on what Americans do in Cuba? Over the past two years, nobody seems to have been keeping tabs on which Americans go to Cuba or what they do there, even though senior officials at the Treasury and Commerce Departments said they took travel restrictions seriously. Now, the Trump administration is directing the Treasury Department to strictly enforce the law regarding travel to Cuba, including routine audits. As Mr. Guild notes, “This is not to be taken lightly.”
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