The Trump administration just took major new steps to tighten already tough restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.
On Tuesday, the Treasury Department announced new Cuba sanctions that include a ban on the educational and cultural group trips known as “people-to-people” travel. According to Treasury Department officials, private and corporate aircraft and boats will also be denied licenses to visit the island nation. The sanctions take effect on Wednesday, June 5 (after they are published in the Federal Register).
The new measures follow a series of sanctions imposed in April 2019 on the Caribbean nation as a response to what U.S. government officials call Cuba’s “destabilizing role” in the Western Hemisphere.
“This administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement. “These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”
What the ban on “people-to-people” travel means
“People-to-people” travel was previously one of 12 categories authorized by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) permitting travel to Cuba for citizens of the United States. According to Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes curated cultural group trips to Cuba, the “people-to-people” category—designed to encourage meaningful interactions between Cubans and foreign travelers—was the most common category under which U.S. citizens planned visits to Cuba.
While “people-to-people” travel is no longer a permitted license for U.S.-Cuba travel, Laverty says there remain numerous ways to legally visit the country: “The changes do not affect 11 other categories of legal travel to Cuba, including ‘Academic Programs,’ ‘Professional Meetings,’ and ‘Support for the Cuban People,’ which will allow many U.S. travelers to continue visiting the island.” (For U.S. citizens who’ve already booked flights to Cuba under the “people-to-people” license, Laverty asserts that it’s safe to expect travel plans to move forward as long as reservations were arranged and paid for before June 5.)
Still, the Trump administration’s new rules will more than likely “hurt U.S. tour operators and the private restaurants, art galleries, and other small businesses that benefited from people-to-people travel,” says Robert Muse, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who specializes in travel to Cuba. “[It’s] a pity,” he continues. “Many genuinely educational [people-to-people] programs are now prohibited.”
The future of U.S. flights and cruises to Cuba
The Trump administration’s new Cuba sanctions won’t directly affect commercial airline flights. However, the rules will have a huge impact on cruises from the United States to Cuba. According to Cuba Travel Network founder and CEO Eddie Lubbers, the restrictions mean that U.S.-Cuba cruises will “effectively be shut down, since they will no longer be able to offer travel to Cuba for tourism and educational activities.”
“U.S. cruise ship travel to Cuba is dead, effectively immediately,” adds Muse. “Cruise lines can throw away their 2019, 2020, and 2021 Cuban itineraries. It seems refunds are in order for booked travel.”
How the new restrictions will impact the demand for U.S. travel to Cuba is yet to be seen. Plus, the latest Cuba sanctions might not be the last we’ll see from the Trump administration: The federal government is still reviewing all “non-family travel” to Cuba as part of the heightened sanctions announced earlier this year.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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