The New Travel Restrictions to Cuba

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Last year, my husband and I decided to take a cruise to Cuba. Turns out, we may be part of a small portion of privileged US citizens who got to see this amazing country during the short window of time that Americans were permitted to travel there. Here’s what you should know about the new travel restrictions if you were thinking of traveling to Cuba.

A quick history

To start, here is a VERY condensed version of how we got here. In 2015, former President Barack Obama changed the travel restrictions. They had been in effect in various forms since the early 60s. The small island is an amazing place, steeped in history and culture. When I went there, the people couldn’t have been more welcoming and friendly to us. I hoped that the influx of American money would benefit the Cuban people. They seem disproportionately affected by the actions of both their own government and those of other countries. The recent choice of the Trump Administration to ban cruise ships from the US to Cuba may squander any accumulated goodwill between the two nations.

Since 2016, Americans have been allowed to travel to Cuba on cruise lines as part of “people-to-people” educational travel. These were meant to put Americans in direct contact with Cubans and learn from them through various cultural activities. That’s right – the trips had to be educational. On my trip, every excursion off the ship had to teach us something. We might have been sipping mojitos while learning about Cuba’s history, but we were learning. In just the first few months of this year, Cuba reported that 140,000 US citizens came to the country via cruise ships. That all ended on June 4th. The White House told cruise ships they had just ONE day to get their ships out of Cuba or change their planned route.

What are the changes?

The people-to-people trips are gone now. They were the most popular type of travel that most US Citizens were using to get to Cuba. However, if you booked part of your cruise before June 5th of this year, you should be good. No new trips to Cuba through cruise lines will be allowed.

All that said, there are still ways for Americans to visit Cuba, they just won’t apply to most people. If you’re Cuban-American, you can go to visit family. If not, your trip has to be for professional research, journalism, or fall into one of the other categories of legal travel. There is a “support for the Cuban people” category. Some people say that could include American travel if you stay at a Cuban person’s Airbnb and eat at family-owned restaurants – paladars – while there. (Yes, there are state-run restaurants and ones owned by Cubans.)

What else should I know?

Certain state-run hotels in Cuba have been “blacklisted” by the American government. So, be mindful of where you book your accommodations. The American government also has the right to conduct what essentially amounts to an “audit” of your trip once you come back. It’s not a common occurrence, luckily, but could happen. Our government is concerned that the money Americans were spending on the island nation was benefiting the Cuban government more than the people who live there.

In the end, the people who will be most harmed by the new travel restrictions to Cuba are the people of Cuba themselves. I met so many people who were making their living off of American tourism. I think back to a young man who drove my husband and I around Havana in his grandfather’s beautiful lime-green Chevy convertible. He was polite and didn’t speak a lot of English. That was alright with me, because he still did better at it than I do with Spanish. I hope he’s okay.

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