A Momentous Year in US/Cuba Relations - What Has Happened? and What does it Mean for Governments and Travelers?
What Has Changed?
On December 17th 2014, the presidents of the United States and Cuba announced new travel regulations affecting the two countries. The announcement was a drastic easing of travel restrictions between the two entities. With the changes announced, many remain to have questions and wonder what to expect.
First, it is important to note that the US embargo in Cuba is still in effect. The announcement represented a monumental step towards the normalization between the two countries, yet there are still aspects to the end goal that need to be addressed. Economic, commercial and financial obstacles still isolate Cuba from the US, but policy concerning agriculture, medicine, information technology and the free movement of people have improved.
What to Expect?
Cuba remains to be an enigma for traveling Americans. Information surrounding Cuban travel standards and guidelines are not widely known; while the undertone of its dated culture result in peaked curiosity and is responsible to why Cuba has become an attractive travel destination. During Bush’s presidency, in 2008, the Bush administration attempted to strengthen the blockade and eradicate the flow of visitors from the US to Cuba, resulting in less than 45,000 legal American visitors to Cuba in that year. In 2010, President Obama mitigated travel restrictions for family visits, increasing the number from 45,000 in 2008 to approximately 450,000 solely in 2010.
As of January 15th 2015, and in reference to Charting a New Course in Cuba released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary, family travel to Cuba was deemed ‘General Licensure.’ ‘People to People,’ a subcategory of ‘General Licensure’ was the most promising avenue to visit Cuba and resulted in nearly 100% increase (from 50,000 to 100,000) from 2014 to 2015.
- Family Visits
- Official Business of the US Government, Foreign Governments and Certain Intergovernmental Organizations
- Journalistic Activity
- Professional Research and Professional Meetings
- Educational Activities
- Religious Activities
- Public Performances, Clinics, Workshops, Athletic and Other Competitions, and Exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban People
- Humanitarian Projects
- Activities of Private Foundations or Research or Educational Institutes
- Exportation, Importation, or Transportation of Information Materials
- Certain Export Transactions that may be considered for Authorization Under Existing Regulations and Guidelines
US government sanctioned reasons for traveling to Cuba have been in existence since 1962; with recent developments, the approval process has improved. A traveler can earn approval by traveling with an operator who has programmed a P2P experience and gaining a signed affidavit.
Unlike some of the other categories, the ‘Religious Activities’ category have strictened the guidelines and approval processes. A traveler can visit El Cobre church, however if a traveler wishes to officiate a ceremony or engage entirely in religious activities throughout the trip, the traveler is required to complete a rigorous application process.
The categories of ‘Support for the Cuban People’ and ‘Humanitarian Projects’ are handled with a degree of skepticism within the Cuban government and loose approval process. A number of the Cuban population, particularly those in academia and social work, entertain the potential in projects supported by foreigners. The future of the process will be indicative of the relationship status between the US and Cuba.
If one is traveling to Cuba to attend Public Performances, Clinics, Workshops, Athletic and Other Competitions, and Exhibitions, new possibilities have emerged. Due to the fact that the US government removed the restriction that any of the events had to be organized by a third party, not the Cuban government. Not only can Americans attend Cuban events, but the events become more popular with the increase in American attendance. Unfortunately, due to the long embargo, Cuba was forced to dismantle its Events and Conventions Bureau and commit their funding and limited resources elsewhere.
People to People Exchange
The ‘P2P’ category refers to travel built around cultural, educational and social programming and represents the intentions of the US government to promote the furthering of understanding between people.
The US still firmly prohibits its citizens from going to Cuba as tourists and discourages US travelers to spend time engaged in typical ‘tourist’ activities. The motivation is to support the understanding of Cuba’s resource scarcity. P2P programs overlap into several areas of government control – public health, education, agriculture, etc. – and in order for P2P programs to exist, the consumption of resources must be monitored.
An experienced and energetic travel entity is capable of building a program that will cater to the traveler’s sense of adventure and awe in exchange for fulfilling activities. It is the equal exchange of personal human interaction that continues to impact and improve the relationship between the two countries.
Potential Bottlenecks: Politics and the Evolution of the Host
To some, Cuba can be seen as more welcoming to travelers than the US. In January 2013, Cuba’s restrictions on travel, to any destination around the world, were removed. The US deemed itself as the free country with heavier travel restrictions than the communist dictatorship that resided in Cuba. While Cuba’s travel restrictions lightened, while in the country, Cuba still requires P2P US visitors to interact with one of three national tourism institutions during their trip.
Another factor that limits growth in travel to Cuba is that country’s infrastructure. The vast majority of all accommodations in country are all inclusive resorts on the beaches, catering mainly to sans-regulations Canadian travelers. Canadians represent the largest demographic of Cuba visitors at 1.2 million in 2013. Inclusive resort accommodations and related tourist activities are not acceptable for US P2P visitors, under the terms of even the new regulations. The growth of casas particulares (private houses) being used as small hotels is surging to bridge the gap between supply and demand. Yet, often times, the demand outweighs the availability of the Cuban host set up. Introduction to entities like AirBnB and the potential for US travelers to book and purchase accommodations online could facilitate and affect growth but OFAC’s language about the legality of these actions is unclear.
Government policies cause airlines to be conservative about providing more direct flights. President Obama has granted direct flights from 19 US airports, and three US carriers – American, Delta and United – have been provided licensing. Still, the demand outweighs the availability of airline transportation. The surge in family visits since 2010 have resulted in direct flights leaving from two additional airports - Tampa and Ft. Lauderdale - but both are in South Florida where the majority of Cuban Americans live. Some of the larger airline companies are positioned to witness the development of a stronger market force to add Cuba as a destination.
Even though relaxing the embargo deems support from much of the American electorate, there are dedicated vocal minorities that limit the repeal and threaten legal action. Being as 2016 is a presidential election year, the relationship between Cuba and the US relies heavily on the outcome of the election.
P2P exchange is a catalyst to improve the relationship between Cuba and the US.
Cuba and the US have been making participating in a political restrictions tennis match. The announcement, in 2014, has placed a chunk of the future upon Cuba’s jurisdiction. The game has intensified even while the blockade is maintained. The removal of embargo is an opportunity for both countries to establish normalization.
In an opinion piece written shortly after these monumental new regulations Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote…
“We [as a people] have so much to learn from Cuba – from its successes in some areas and failures in others. As I walked through the streets of Havana, Model-Ts chugged by, Che’s soaring effigy hung in wrought iron above the street, and a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln stood in a garden on a tree-lined avenue. I could feel the weight of sixty years of Cuban history, a history so deeply intertwined with that of my own country.”