By Susana Corona Cruz
Casas particulares in Cuba have taken a bad hit with the announcement of further travel restrictions in place for American citizens and residents. But not all U.S. travel companies are scaling back their business activity in Cuba as Trump’s scaremongering tactics have not deterred one American airline that remains hopeful that under a new president, things will go back to the way they were during Obama’s last term and travel demand to Cuba will pick up once again.
While the Trump administration continues to add restrictions to curtail Cuba travel in efforts to impede “veiled” Cuba holidays for American citizens, some U.S. travel companies remain optimistic that things might turn around, especially if the 2020 reelections are won by a democrat party.
After the latest government announcement revealing that charter flights to 9 Cuban cities were to be suspended, some travel U.S. companies were wary of a dreary future ahead. When it came to the Cuba holidays industry for American travellers many were ready to drop the towel. But not all.
While JetBlue announced it would reduce its frequencies to Cuba, American Airlines jumped at the opportunity to take those new Cuba routes off their hands and has just applied to the DOT to take the two new rotations on. A risky strategy if the 2020 reelections see Trump hold on to the presidency for another four-year term, but, in the (increasingly more likely event) that a democrat president wins the election, American Airlines have a lot to win.
Winds of change
Democrat candidates all have one thing in common when it comes to their planned Cuba policy – a return to the Obama era of rapprochement. And Cuba is crossing its fingers that a democrat will be elected next as it has a lot at stake in the U.S. November 2020 elections.
Cuba’s economy heavily relies on tourism and with Trump’s clamp down on travel to Cuba the island has experienced major losses. Casa particular owners are feeling the pinch too, as are virtually all Cuban entrepreneurs whose new businesses in the hospitality sector relied
heavily on a steady fresh influx of American visitors. At the close of 2017, around 600,00 American travellers (with no familial ties to the island) had visited Cuba. Over half a million tourists was a significant figure for the then booming Cuba holiday industry and more than six-times the number of American travellers to Cuba prior to Obama’s thawing of relations. But after Trump assumed power things took a turn for the worse. Cuba cruises and private jets flying to the island have been banned entirely, the people-to-people tours have been cancelled and the U.S. Department of Treasure published a list of restricted entities that Americans are forbidden to engage in financial transactions with (the list includes hotels, shops and travel agencies). It all adds to an atmosphere of gloom and doom and gives potential American visitors the impression that travel to Cuba has now gotten complicated again and is no longer a feasible option. A notion that breeds fear and uncertainty among hesitating visitors but one that couldn’t be further from the truth, as Americans can not only still freely fly to Cuba; legally, very little has changed for them to be able to do so.
But Cuba travel is still on
The funny thing is that despite all the noise, Cuba travel is still 100% legal for American travellers. They are still free to arrange a Cuba trip by ticking one of the 12 categories in the generic travel license (the most commonly selected option is the “support to the Cuban people” option, which replaced the “people-to-people” category. Arranging flights is still pretty straightforward as is obtaining a travel visa (airlines flying to Cuba sell them at the airport) although American travellers now have far fewer options on flight frequency and direct Cuba destinations to fly to. But that doesn’t mean that Havana is the only arrival option. American Airlines still flies direct to Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Santa Clara, Holguin, Santiago and Varadero. Even if it’s one of the very few airlines that still do so, nothing stops American travellers from arranging domestic travel to other Cuban cities once in Havana and there are fantastic connecting options to several Cuban cities, both by land (regular coach buses depart with twice-daily frequencies) and by air.
As to Havana casa particulares, they’re the least affected by Trump’s travel rollbacks but they’re certainly not enthused and are beginning to worry about what will happen if a Republican president stays in power for the next four years. Casa particular hosts elsewhere in Cuba are praying for a totally different scenario where Americans can once again fly direct to their cities. Cuban entrepreneurs in cities other than Havana are hoping for the return of Cuba cruises, which brought hundreds of daily American visitors to cities like Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Santiago and Trinidad.
The influx of high-profile Cuban visitors – a regal, trendsetting mark
Despite 2019 being an “annus horribilis” for U.S.-Cuba relations, the Trump administration cooling stance towards Cuba did not deter two high profile European figures from landing in Havana. Prince Charles and Camilla made history first by visiting the island in March 2019 and thus becoming the first heir to the British throne and queen-to-be to have set foot in Cuba. During their 3-day Cuba trip, they immersed in the culture, the flavours and the history by paying tribute to national hero Jose Marti with a wreath-laying ceremony, attending a special ballet dance performance, visiting a boxing ring and meeting young Cuban boxers, driving a vintage classic British car down Havana’s street and tasting local food. Much of their itinerary looked a lot like a Cuba holiday carefully planned out by any ordinary tourist or an organised “support to the Cuban people” tour arranged by specialised U.S. tour operators.
The king and queen of Spain followed with a November visit to mark Havana’s 500th birthday and much like their predecessors, they engaged in plenty of cultural and historical immersions, including romantic walks on foot along Old Havana’s pretty cobblestone street and dining at a local paladar. Sure, they didn’t stay at a Havana casa particular, but you wouldn’t expect a royal to be able to do so.
These two official state visits by European monarchs followed an era of American celebrities flocking to Havana between 2015 and 2017. From Katy Perry to Rihana, Madonna, Will Smith, Jon Bon Jovi and the Rolling Stones, the list of American celebrities living it up in Cuba grew considerably during the pre-Trump years. Could 2020 mark the year that celebrities from all spheres return to Cuba? We surely hope so and that in doing so they help renew interest among future American visitors as well as inspire them to visit the island, immerse in the local folklore, and, of course, stay in a casa particular!