President Donald Trump and his administration announced it will be imposing restrictions for Americans traveling to Cuba.
WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Tuesday ended the most popular forms of U.S. travel to Cuba, banning cruise ships and a heavily used category of educational travel in an attempt to cut off cash to the island’s communist government.
Cruise travel from the U.S. to Cuba began in May 2016 during President Barack Obama’s opening with the island. It has become the most popular form of U.S. leisure travel to the island, bringing 142,721 people in the first four months of the year, a more than 300% increase over the same period last year. For travelers confused about the thicket of federal regulations governing travel to Cuba, cruises offered a simple, one-stop, guaranteed-legal way to travel.
That now appears to be over, with an estimated 800,000 cruise passenger bookings affected, according to cruise industry group Cruise Lines International Association.
“Cruise ships as well as recreational and pleasure vessels are prohibited from departing the U.S. on temporary sojourn to Cuba effective (Wednesday),” the Commerce Department said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The new restrictions are part of a broader effort by the administration of President Donald Trump to roll back the Obama-era efforts to restore normal relations between the United States and Cuba, which drew sharp criticism from the more hard-line elements of the Cuban American community and their allies in Congress.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who declared Cuba part of a “troika of tyranny” along with Nicaragua and Venezuela as he outlined plans for sanctions in November, said the new policy is intended to deny the Cuban government a vital source of revenue.
“The Administration has advanced the President’s Cuba policy by ending ‘veiled tourism’ to Cuba and imposing restrictions on vessels,” Bolton said on Twitter. “We will continue to take actions to restrict the Cuban regime’s access to U.S. dollars.”
The Cuban government imposed food rationing last month as a result of tightened U.S. sanctions and a drop in subsidized oil and other aid from Venezuela. For the Cuban government, cruise travel generated many millions of dollars a year in docking fees and payments for on-shore excursions, although those figures were never made public. Cuba also has become the most-requested destination for many South Florida-based cruise lines.
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“The Trump administration deserves tremendous credit for holding accountable the Cuban regime,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said. “The United States must use all tools available under U.S. law to counter the Cuban regime’s deceitful activities to undermine U.S. policy.”
Questions remain for cruise lines and passengers
The new restrictions take effect Wednesday, but the government said it will allow anyone who has already paid for a trip to go ahead with it. But the process going forward for passengers isn’t clear.
Carnival Corporation spokesman Roger Frizzell told USA TODAY Wednesday there would be no grandfathering allowed for cruise ships.
“Due to changes in U.S. policy, the company will no longer be permitted to sail to Cuba effective immediately,” he said, adding that Carnival and its sister lines, Holland America and Seabourn, would provide additional details to passengers who have already booked cruises affected by the ban.
However, cruise lines carrying passengers booked before Tuesday had been hoping that they could request specific federal permits to complete their trips to Cuba, said Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based attorney who represents Carnival and three other major cruise lines.
“For now, it’s prohibited unless the cruise line requests a specific license,” Freyre said. He said cruise lines had been trying to determine “if there’s any opening there to at least complete trips that have been booked and passengers that have made travel plans.”
Carnival is not the only line impacted by the new restrictions. USA TODAY and the Associated Press have reached out to cruise lines that visit Cuba for comment, and many of them are still trying to figure out the implications.
- Royal Caribbean has ships and passengers immediately impacted. Spokesman Owen Torres told USA TODAY in a statement, “We are aware of the announcement and are analyzing the details to understand the impact on our itineraries. In the meantime, we are adjusting the itineraries of our June 5 and June 6 sailings, which will no longer stop in Cuba. We are communicating with our guests about those changes.”
- Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement to the AP that it was scrutinizing the new rules and consulting with lawyers and trade experts. “We are closely monitoring these recent developments and any resulting impact to cruise travel to Cuba,” Norwegian said. “We will communicate to our guests and travel partners as additional information becomes available.”
- Joe Chabus, spokesperson for Regent Seven Seas Cruises, told USA TODAY in an email the cruise line was also in the evaluation stage and “monitoring” developments.
- Future expansion for some lines has also been affected. Virgin Voyages’ first ship to Cuba, the Scarlet Lady, was due to set sail in April 2020. “We‘re disappointed to hear of the Administration’s decision to significantly restrict travel activity to Cuba,” the line said in a statement provided to USA TODAY by spokesperson Kristin Martinez. “The beauty of sea travel is that we have the flexibility to adjust our itineraries if needed.”
In an email, Megan King, a spokesperson for cruise industry group Cruise Lines International Association, told USA TODAY that the new regulations were announced suddenly and will have massive implications.
“Without warning, CLIA cruise line members are forced to eliminate all Cuba destinations from all itineraries effective immediately. This affects nearly 800,000 passenger bookings that are scheduled or already underway. All these bookings had been made under a general license previously issued by the United States Government that authorized “people to people” travel to Cuba.”
Unfortunately, King said, cruise lines are virtually powerless in this situation: “The new rules effectively make it illegal to cruise to Cuba from the United States. While this situation is completely beyond our control, we are genuinely sorry for all cruise line guests who were looking forward to their previously booked itineraries to Cuba.”
Most private planes and boats also banned
“This affects all of us,” said William Mártinez, 58, a Cuban-born American who lived in Florida for 46 years but returned five years ago to drive a classic car for tourists. “It’s inhuman, the sanctions that they’re putting on Cuba.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the measures are a response to what he calls Cuba’s “destabilizing role” in the Western Hemisphere, including support for the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
“This administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime,” Mnuchin said. “These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence and security services.”
Along with the cruise ships, the U.S. will also now ban most private planes and boats from stopping in the island.
Cruises have become more popular than flights for leisure travelers to Cuba — nearly 30,000 more came by cruise ship than flights this year. The figures exclude Cuban-born Americans visiting family on the island.
“I’ve been dying to come to Cuba forever, to see the cars, the buildings,” said Maria Garcia, a 46-year-old teacher from Puerto Rico who arrived in Havana Tuesday morning on a Norwegian ship. “I could do it with this cruise. … Trump needs to understand that people should come to this country, to enjoy and get to know its culture, just like we would do in any other part of the world.”
Commercial airline flights appear to be unaffected by the new measures and travel for university groups, academic research, journalism and professional meetings will continue to be allowed.
Collin Laverty, head of Cuba Educational Travel, one of the largest Cuba travel companies in the U.S., called the new measures “political grandstanding aimed at Florida in the run up to the 2020 elections.”
“It’s also terrible for U.S. companies that are providing employment and paying taxes in the U.S. and creating an economic footprint on the island,” he said.
Contributing: Weissenstein reported from Havana. Associated Press writers Andrea Rodriguez in Havana; Adriana Gomez-Licon in Miami and Ben Fox in Washington also contributed to this report.
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