Travel experts say Trump’s policy reversal will ‘devastate’ Cuba
President Donald Trump announced Friday he would reverse the policy changes made by the Obama administration to improve relations with Cuba, a move some say will devastate businesses on the Communist-ruled island.
The changes will make it more difficult for people to travel from the U.S. to Cuba and bar Americans from doing business with institutions owned by military services there. “The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people — they only enrich the Cuban regime,” Trump said in a speech Friday announcing the policy.
Under former president Barack Obama’s regulations, Americans could travel to the country under 12 approved categories, including religious activities, humanitarian projects, “support for the Cuban people,” and journalistic activities. It is not yet clear how exactly the rules will affect tourism, as Trump alluded to a “travel ban” in his speech Friday, but the official White House statement said it will allow non-academic travel for groups.
The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements these policies, has also not yet announced how it will respond to the changes. However, travel groups are already speaking out against them.
“Additional prohibitions and oversight on travel will only confuse Americans and dissuade them from visiting Cuba, causing significant economic hardship to Cuban entrepreneurs and average Cuban families, as well as Americans working in the hospitality sector,” a spokesman from educational exchange program company Cuba Educational Travel said.
As of 2014, before Cuba opened further to Americans, tourism contributed to 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. In 2016, the country saw a 34% in crease in visits from Cuban Americans and other U.S. travelers. James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan nonprofit dedicated to ending trade restrictions with Cuba, said these changes will be “devastating” for the private sector in the country, which relies heavily on tourism.
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“We love the rhetoric of wanting to help the Cuban people, but unfortunately the practical reality and impact of this will be the opposite,” he said. “It takes money out of the pocket of Cubans in the private sector and puts it in the hands of the Cuban regime.”
Williams said he’s been fielding frantic calls from locals who put their savings into travel businesses after interest in tourism to the country spiked in recent years. Travel website Kayak declared the country its hottest destination after it saw a 173% increase in Cuba searches in April 2017 compared with April 2016. Airbnb says the country is its fastest-growing market in history, with more than 8,000 listings available there despite limited internet access.
Hotels and restaurants to be hit the hardest by these changes, said Andrew Sheivachman, senior writer at travel industry news website Skift. Airlines that initially rushed to schedule flights to Cuba when restrictions were eased in 2014 may have to cut back on or eliminate these routes completely, he added.
However, some companies were already seeing underwhelming demand for flights, with empty seats on planes flying to the country, and an additional decrease could be the final step toward dropping out, he said. Many Americans found that the country’s dining and lodging options were not up to their standards, and the country was quickly overwhelmed by the influx of visitors.
“What this is doing is adding uncertainty surrounding trips to Cuba,” he said. “Uncertainty is never good in the travel industry. Are you going to want to go to a place that isn’t developed to begin with, and now is more limited on where you can eat, attractions you can see, and where you can stay? These are things that can have a chilling effect on travel.”