On Friday, President Trump unveiled a directive canceling portions of Obama’s 2016 détente with Cuba – Trump’s way of making good on a campaign promise to “reverse” all of Obama’s free trade and tourism policy initiatives and enforce the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
In addition to sparking much concern regarding U.S.-Cuban ties, and plenty of outrage among Cuban officials, the order has raised questions among American would-be travelers to the island nation. Here’s how Trump’s move could affect those hoping to visit Cuba.
What does the order do exactly?
It will restrict American travel to the island. The government will enforce the ban on “tourism” to the country – a ban that was never technically lifted under Obama – and U.S. companies will be barred from doing business with the military-linked conglomerate GAESA, which controls much of the island’s tourism industry.
Will I be able to travel to Cuba at all?
The short answer is yes. But there will be changes to how you can do so. Namely, you won’t be able to select the “people-to-people” classification on your travel form when headed to Cuba. Educational travel will be off the table as well. According to the Treasury Department, which licenses Cuba travel, under the new rules, a “traveler’s schedule of activities must not include free time or recreation in excess.”
So how can I travel to Cuba?
Under the rules initiated by President Obama, there are 12 types of legal travel to Cuba. They were created to allow American travel that wasn’t officially “tourism.” Those categories of authorized travel will remain, but independent travelers will be barred from traveling under a privately organized educational or cultural trip.
You can still travel to Cuba as part of a group trip with an officially licensed tour operator such as Insight Cuba or Intrepid Travel. Additionally, 10 out of the 12 categories of authorized travel will still be allowed for independent travelers; they include family travel (so Americans can visit their families in Cuba), professional research and meetings, religious activities, humanitarian projects and public performances (meaning artists, athletes and performers can visit Cuba to perform, exhibit or participate in their craft).
Can I still book a flight or cruise to Cuba?
Yes, but not for a “vacation” unless you book through an official tour operator. Spirit, Frontier and Silver airlines have deserted their U.S.-to-Cuba routes, but larger carriers are determined to continue servicing both charter and commercial flights. Airlines such as JetBlue and Delta are continuing their service to Cuba while remaining in compliance with the new policies, and both commercial flights and cruise ships will still be permitted to travel to the island.
What if I want to sneak in a solo trip before the rules go into effect?
It took four months for Obama’s policy to come into play, and Trump’s could take a similar amount of time. The president requested that the Commerce and Treasury departments approve his directives within 30 days, but the new policies won’t take effect until the new regulations have been finalized – a process that can take months. So if you’re headed to Cuba within the next several weeks, you should be OK without changing your plans. But if you were hoping to go after that, it would probably be a good idea to book through a tour company.
How will a trip with a tour company differ from traveling on my own?
When you book through a tour company, you will be traveling under a specific, government-approved itinerary. That means you will no longer be able to catch a flight to Cuba, book an Airbnb or hotel room, spend a day with a tour guide and then strike off on your own to do as you please. In fact, Americans won’t be able to stay in Cuban hotels, rent cars or take buses at all since the Cuban government owns them. Approved group people-to-people travel through tour operators will remain legal if you are booked to stay in pre-approved accommodations such as privately owned bed and breakfasts or a casa de particular (a homestay with a Cuban family) and take part in only pre-approved activities. This means you’ll be paying a few thousand dollars for a tour operator to make sure everything you’re doing is legal by taking you on a paint-by-numbers vacation. Tour operators will be required to adhere to new regulations and will be audited by the U.S. government to ensure that their itineraries are in adherence with the new policy – but it’s unclear how aggressively U.S. officials will enforce audits and monitor travel.
In short, traveling with a tour company is often more expensive and less unfettered than independent travel, but at least it will be a legal way to get there. So if you’ve been wanting to go to Cuba, you should. Trump’s new rules mean changes for U.S. travelers, but they will not affect your ability to meet Cuban people or enjoy the island’s rich culture.
What about traveling through Canada or Mexico to get away with independent stays in Cuba?
Gutsy American travelers have long illegally traveled to Cuba by way of Mexico and Canada. Because there are no restrictions from the Mexican or Canadian governments regarding travel to the island, Americans can fly in and out of Havana from either destination without an approved reason. Cubajet.com offers round-trip tickets to Havana from several Mexican and Canadian destinations and allows you to book flights with a U.S. credit card. Because Cuba does not restrict Americans from entering the country, your U.S. passport will still be valid upon arrival to the island. However, things can get tricky upon re-entering the U.S., since it is illegal to lie to Customs officers about where you’ve been. If you try to hide your trip to Cuba, you will be violating federal laws and can face serious punishment.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct information about how long it could take for Trump’s revised policies to go into effect.