Annika Hammerschlag, Usa Today Network
Point of View: To beat Trump restrictions, Americans rush plans to visit Cuba
When Paul Vangelakos heard President Donald Trump would be announcing a plan to tighten restrictions on travel to Cuba, he thought, “Oh shoot. I need to get on this right now.”
Vangelakos booked his flight June 15, from San Francisco to Havana, the day before Trump announced his new policy while speaking in Miami. Many Americans, much like Vangelakos, are feeling rushed to make the trip for fear it will be their last chance — at least for the next four years.
Several American-based travel organizations reported an increase in sales after Trump’s announcement.
Tom Popper, president of travel agency insightCuba, said his company saw a 32 percent increase in web traffic and a 25 percent increase in bookings in the days after Trump’s speech. “Much of the increase is due to the awareness and sense of urgency the announcement created,” he said. Cuba Educational Travel founder Collin Laverty also said he saw a “major” uptick in inquiries and sales. Last-minute bookings for group and individual travel over the summer are up 250 percent compared to last year, he said.
Popular travel guide company Lonely Planet also has experienced an increase in Cuba guidebook sales, according to Katie Coffee, the company’s director of marketing.
“Lonely Planet Cuba” is the company’s second bestselling guidebook in the U.S., and Lonely Planet now sells almost half of all Cuba guidebooks in the U.S., she said.
American Airlines, JetBlue, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which offer regular flights between the U.S. and Cuba, declined to provide sales information regarding bookings between the two countries.
Under Trump’s proposed guidelines, Americans interested in traveling to Cuba would have to do so with a group through a licensed tour operator. Independent travel under the people-to-people visa no longer will be allowed. That type of solo travel has been permitted only since March 2016.
Americans also will be allowed to travel for educational and religious purposes, and Cuban-Americans visiting family still will be permitted to take unlimited trips to the island. Diplomatic relations will continue under the new rules, as will former President Barack Obama’s reversal of the controversial “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans who reach American shores to stay.
The Cuban embargo was put in place in the early 1960s shortly after Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries overthrew U.S.-backed President Fulgencio Batista and seized control of the island. The policy was relaxed in 2011 when Obama loosened restrictions on travel and sending remittances, and again in 2015 when Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries, though the trade embargo remained in place.
While speaking in Miami, Trump said the Obama administration’s “terrible and misguided deal” would bolster the Castro regime, which he said has spread “violence and instability” across the island. “The outcome of the last administration’s executive action has been only more repression and a move to crush the peaceful, democratic movement,” Trump said. “We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba.”
Trump said the U.S. sanctions will remain in place until the Cuban government releases its political prisoners, legalizes political parties and schedules free, internationally supervised elections.
“Now we hold the cards,” Trump said.
As for Vangelakos, he has been scouring Cuban travel forums and reading up on U.S.-Cuba policy to make sure his trip falls within the legal limitations.
“I’m still nervous,” he said. “I still don’t understand exactly what the limitations are.”
The Trump administration has not yet set a date as to when the new policy will take effect. Vangelakos is somewhat comforted by the guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Treasury, which assured that Americans who booked their flights or accommodations prior to Trump’s announcement will be authorized to continue with their travel plans.“I had always planned on going to Cuba,” he said. “This just kind of rushed my trip a little bit more than I would’ve wanted it to.”