The good news about the change to Cuba travel policy announced recently by the Trump Administration is that there are still plenty of ways to travel to Cuba, even if you don’t want to go with a big tour group. The bad news is that the new rules continue to be extremely vague and have created a lot of uncertainty and confusion, which will likely lead to fewer visitors from the U.S., and a slow down in the private entrepreneurial economy that has sprouted up over the past few years on the island and is mostly concentrated in services geared toward foreign tourists.
The main big change to the rules are the new restrictions on “People-to-People” travel, a subcategory of the Educational travel category. Prior to the rule change, there was a specific stipulation that said that travelers could conduct their own independent People-to-People trips, by simply declaring the category and making sure they had a full time itinerary with educational activities. Now, those “independent” trips have been deemed illegal — to be legal under the People-to-People category, travelers must book through a U.S. tour company and have a U.S. employee in Cuba overseeing every trip.
Fortunately, none of the other 11 categories of travel were touched by the new changes, so travelers can still travel to Cuba, without any prior licensing or permission, to visit family, participate in professional research and meetings, athletic workshops and events, journalistic activities, humanitarian projects, etc. Traveling under “Support for the Cuban People” also remains an option, and is widely thought to be the next “People-to-People,” since this category allows for the widest variety of activities. The “Support…” category stipulates that travelers must maintain a full time schedule of activities that support independent individual and non-governmental organizations and lead to meaningful interactions with individual Cubans. Somewhat confusingly, the rules state that:
“Staying in a room at a rented accommodation in a private Cuban residence (casa particular), eating at privately-owned Cuban restaurants (paladares), and shopping at privately-owned stores run by self-employed Cubans (cuentapropista) are examples of activities that qualify for this general license. However, in order to meet the requirement for a full-time schedule, a traveler must engage in additional authorized Support for the Cuban People activities.”
Airlines have vowed to continue to offer daily flights to Havana and other cities across the island, and Airbnb is continuing to allow U.S. travelers to book rooms by declaring their travel category during the payment process. While the new announcement may slow down travel for a bit, it seems the Obama Administrations strategy of encouraging U.S. private sector engagement with Cuba as a way to ensure the longevity of their policy changes is paying off. As many have commented, once Cuba and the U.S. reestablish business interests, shutting it down will be extremely difficult.
The only other major change made by the Trump Administration was the issuance of a list of restricted entities by the U.S. State Dept. This list details Cuban companies that are all- or part-owned by the Cuban government and military and are therefore off limits to U.S. citizens. These companies own hotels, shops, and some tourism companies on the island, so it’s important if you’re going to Cuba to make sure you aren’t staying in a hotel that is on the restricted list. Fortunately, Airbnbs are all privately owned, and are better than the island’s musty and aging hotel stock anyway, so skipping the hotel room is a better way to go anyhow.
If you’re thinking of planning a trip to Cuba, I highly recommend (and now work for) ViaHero, a startup that connects travelers to local trip planners who help arrange logistics, offer insider tips, and ensure that your trip fits all of the legal regulations. Use this link for a 5% discount, or use the code BRIDGESCUBA during checkout.