President Trump announced major changes to U.S.-Cuba relations today that have wide-reaching impacts. Among them, nullifying person-to-person travel from the U.S. to Cuba and restricting business with the Cuban conglomerate GASESA (Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group), which controls most sectors of the Cuban economy. We spoke with Tom Popper, president of U.S.-to-Cuba travel operator Insight Cuba, to give us the rundown on what Trump’s changes mean for American travelers, business, and Cubans. Here’s what you need to know.
Say Goodbye to Solo Trips
Individuals will no longer be able to simply check the “People to People” box on their visa and be granted access to Cuba, which not only stops independent adventurous types from exploring the island, but also people looking to visit their Cuban family. “If these changes are instated, then we could roll back to the same place we were before December 2015, when the Bush administration banned any individual from obtaining a license to travel,” says Popper. “In that case, you will only be able to travel to Cuba if you are traveling with a licensed tour operator like Insight Cuba. You won’t be able to buy a commercial plane ticket and book a hotel online and check a box on your visa.”
Tour Operators Could Fold
A policy resembling that of the Bush era is not only difficult for travelers, but also the tour operators that are then the only way for individuals to get to the island. “A policy that requires all travel to be through a licensed operator creates an incredible burden on organizations like us because we have to apply to the U.S. Department of the Treasury to become authorized to travel. If our approval gets delayed, then our trips get delayed, and our passengers get delayed. During the Bush administration, we experienced a four-month-long booking upheaval because the government can be slow with approving licenses. It made business continuity difficult.” For travelers, that means that even making a booking with a licensed tour operator can be a crapshoot if the government is in the middle of re-approving their license to operate. Most tour operators have plenty of insurance and fine-print policy to protect their customers from losing all the money they put into their bookings in cases like this, but it’s still a huge bummer to have the trip you planned fall through because of government-induced delays that neither you or the operator you booked through have any control over.
If You Already Have a Trip Booked, You’re Safe
“If you’re planning to travel independently I recommend doing it this summer,” Popper says. If you’re planning on going on a group tour, you’re fine and have nothing to worry about because you’ll have a travel license.” For independent travelers who already have plans to visit the island, you’re safe. Commercial flight tickets and hotel reservations that were booked prior to the announcement and are booked for dates that fall before any executive order is written into policy by the U.S. Departments of the Treasury and Commerce will be honored.
For the Rest of You, Get to Cuba While You Still Can
But either way, things are changing. “My advice for people who want to go to Cuba is this: Get it in while you can.” Because regardless of whether or not it remains lawful to travel to Cuba, the more legislative restrictions that are enacted between the U.S. and Cuba, the more difficult it will be to have an easy, enjoyable trip to the island. Even though the specifics of the changes that will be enacted are still unclear, it is clear that things will change. Popper estimates that Trump’s order (if it is written into policy) won’t take full effect and be enforced for four to eight months. Look at that as your time frame to get your Cuba travel — as we know it now — checked off your travel bucket list.