Casa particular owners in Cuba are among those being hurt the most with Trump’s new Cuba travel crackdown. The confusion stemming from the new adjustments to travel regulations has seen a diminishing number of U.S. visitor arrivals and this is of special concern to those who own a casa particular in Havana (and beyond) as well as other types of Cuban entrepreneurs.
Trump’s dream-crushing effect on Cuban entrepreneurs
At the start of the year many Cubans were hopeful about the opportunities that the island’s new private ownership concessions allowed and upon a steady (and growing) flow of U.S. visitors (who were among the most generous
foreign contributors to the island’s private economy sector) many aspiring Cuban entrepreneurs took the leap to launch their own businesses only to be met with the news of a crackdown on Cuba travel for Americans a few months later.
This is exactly what happened to young Cuban fashion designer, Chaaban, who, according to Mia Taylor on her piece for Travel Pulse, said she felt disillusioned and frustrated after having opened her first shop in Old Havana right at the time when the tightening of rules on Cuba travel was announced by the Trump administration.
The news fell on young Chaaban like a bucket of icy water and her hopes of a good start to business activity were instantly crushed. A month has gone by and every day she loses faith that things will pick up or that American tourists will return.
Not hurting the Cuban government, just the Cuban people
It’s no secret that U.S. visitors are the biggest spenders in Cuba and because they previously travelled to the island on people-to-people licenses they left the most money at the hands of Cubans themselves (as opposed to government-run establishments) in order to comply with Obama’s loosened travel rules. Even if not all of them stayed in a casa particular, they all endeavored to meet locals (in order to tick one of the boxes of the 12 categories allowed for travel), foster cultural exchanges and help the booming private economy by shopping at privately-owned stores and eating out in paladares (private restaurants).
But the real problem is not the tightening of Cuba travel rules for U.S. visitors, as not a lot has actually changed in terms of U.S. citizens being able to visit Cuba (with the exception of cruises which have been brought to an abrupt halt and are no longer allowed to call at the island) and Americans are still allowed to independently arrange travel to Cuba, book commercial flights to Cuba (still in place) and stay at a casa particular. The only thing that has changed is the publishing of a long list of forbidden hotels where Americans are not allowed to stay (not a real problem if you plan to opt for a cosy, lively and colourful casa particular, which is what many U.S. travellers did anyway) and the name of the license, which has gone from being called “people to people” visa to “support to the Cuban people” visa, which is essentially the same, minus some slight nuances.
Yet, the biggest problem of all is the way that the announcement of tighter rules for Cuba travel has been received by many U.S. travellers, who have wrongly taken this policy amendment to mean that travelling to Cuba now is complicated and not worth the hassle. Headlines like “Cuba travel ban” or “Cuba travel crackdown” have made it appear as though getting to the island is no longer easy and Trump’s administration has made it very difficult to travel to Cuba now when in essence, very little has changed. The damage is already done though and Cuban entrepreneurs are now lamenting the consequences, like Andrea Gallina, the owner of a majestic casa particular in Havana now meticulously transformed into a boutique hotel. She revealed that the number of American bookings to her hotel has dropped from 55 per cent in 2017 to 30 per cent now.
“Americans were filling the streets of Havana under Obama and there was happiness,” – Gallina says, adding that Trump’s crackdown on Cuba travel had dire consequences for Cuban entrepreneurs, conversely the opposite effect of what the Trump administration allegedly wanted to achieve, which, in their words was
“In any market, when you create confusion, people are reluctant to come. Americans have very few holidays. They will choose someplace where they know it’s easy to visit.”
The abrupt halt on Cuba cruises
The dramatic cut-off of U.S. cruise arrivals has also had dire consequences for many Cuban entrepreneurs. The cruise industry was responsible for sending a significant percentage of the 800,000 American visitors to the island last year, and even though they didn’t stay in casas particulares, they were the biggest spenders and the ones that directly contributed to the local economy in a significant way, given that their tours included lots of stops at private art workshops and privately-owned Cuban businesses. Not only that, as more and more U.S. cruise lines headed to Cuba, more and more Cubans jumped on the opportunity to open a restaurant in Havana’s harbour, the majority of dining venues and cafes there are privately-owned and now overnight all their business is gone. No cruises, no clients. They’ve lost it all.
“A lot of people were making a living only because of the cruise ships. It’s been tragic for a lot of people. Taxi drivers are selling their cars because they have no business.” said Zoe Avile, a Cuban woman who works in the tourism industry and who added that they’ve gone from having 50 to 60 groups a month during high season under Obama to having little to no bookings for the upcoming season starting next September.
Disappointment and disbelief – the heartbreak of Cuban entrepreneurs
The mood in the island now is of disappointment and despair for some, especially Cuba’s new generation of youngsters with entrepreneurial spirit who saw a ray of hope with the opening of the economy during the Obama era and took a leap of faith by opening businesses, whether in the form of a casa particular in Havana transformed into a boutique hotel, creating a fashion line or opening a new chic restaurant with authentic character and Cuban flavour. It’s ironic that precisely what the new Trump travel rules allegedly intend to achieve is having the exact opposite effect. They’re not hurting the revenue of the Cuban government as much as they’re hurting the private economy of the average daily Cuban.
If you’re an American reading this, please don’t let the new travel rules dissuade you to visit Cuba, learn about what’s changed and what hasn’t and don’t miss the opportunity to immerse in one of the most fascinating countries, culture and people in the world. Whether you stay in a casa particular in Havana or craft your own foodie guide at the island’s nascent hip restaurants (all privately owned), you won’t regret the experience!