Cubans fret over U.S. pol­icy shift

Busi­nesses say in­come to be lost in tourism crack­down

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - MIMI WHITEFIELD

MI­AMI — Nidialys Acosta han­dles the book­ing for a loose as­so­ci­a­tion of vin­tage car own­ers in Cuba who have banded to­gether to of­fer trans­porta­tion for vis­it­ing dig­ni­taries and other groups. Clients have in­cluded a New York busi­ness del­e­ga­tion led by Gov. An­drew Cuomo and one of the founders of Airbnb.

But sev­eral groups re­cently can­celed their reser­va­tions with Nostal­gicar. The first, a group of 10, can­celed on the same day that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced his new Cuba pol­icy in Mi­ami, Acosta said.

“The pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion’s eas­ing of re­stric­tions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban peo­ple — they only en­rich the Cuban regime,” Trump said dur­ing his June 16 speech, which was re­ported by of­fi­cial press on the is­land. His pol­icy, Trump said, will “help the Cuban peo­ple form busi­nesses and pur­sue much bet­ter lives.”

“In Pres­i­dent Trump’s speech, he said he wanted to help the pri­vate sec­tor, but I am won­der­ing in what way,” Acosta said. About 20 driv­ers de­pend on Nostal­gicar book­ings for their liveli­hood, she said, and a group of me­chan­ics also work at Garaje Nostal­gicar, a garage run by her hus­band that re­fur­bishes clas­sic cars.

The pres­i­dent’s new pol­icy is aimed at not only ex­ert­ing pres­sure on Cuba to im­prove its hu­man-rights record but also chan­nel­ing Amer­i­can ex­pen­di­tures and pos­si­ble busi­ness deals away from the Cuban mil­i­tary and to­ward Cuba’s nascent pri­vate sec­tor.

The pres­i­dent is elim­i­nat­ing one cat­e­gory of travel to the is­land: in­di­vid­ual peo­pleto-peo­ple trips, or self-styled itin­er­ar­ies that were sup­posed to help Cubans and Amer­i­cans get to know each other bet­ter. And that con­cerns some Cuban en­trepreneurs who wel­comed the surge in Amer­i­can trav­el­ers af­ter the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion opened up travel and trade last year.

Trump be­lieves that in­di­vid­ual peo­ple-to-peo­ple travel is ripe for abuse by Amer­i­cans who just want to go to Cuba to sun on the beach or en­gage in other tourist ac­tiv­i­ties. The United States pro­hibits tourism to Cuba but al­lows “pur­pose­ful” travel such as ed­u­ca­tional group tours, fam­ily vis­its and hu­man­i­tar­ian trips. To stop il­le­gal tourism, it ap­pears there also will be stepped-up au­dit­ing of trav­el­ers. Peo­ple-to-peo­ple travel in or­ga­nized groups re­mains in­tact un­der the new Trump pol­icy.

Acosta said she didn’t speak di­rectly with the can­cel­ing groups be­cause the reser­va­tions came through the state-run San Cris­to­bal Travel Agency, which is associated with the Of­fice of the His­to­rian of Havana and spe­cial­izes in his­toric tours. But she has her sus­pi­cions about why they can­celed.

“I think the Amer­i­cans are afraid if they come here, they may have prob­lems. This wor­ries me a great deal. It could put the brakes on things,” Acosta said. “I hope Trump changes his ideas or has bet­ter ones, but I am not too op­ti­mistic.”

Some an­a­lysts say lim­it­ing trans­ac­tions with the mil­i­tary by Amer­i­cans and U.S. busi­nesses won’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late into help for the pri­vate sec­tor.

“Over­all, there is likely to be a de­crease in the num­ber of trav­el­ers and trans­ac­tions, and I think that’s go­ing to hurt the pri­vate sec­tor in Cuba, which has been grow­ing over the last many years largely as a re­sult of the in­crease in U.S. trav­el­ers,” said Ted Pic­cone, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

RE­LY­ING ON TOURISTS

For Ju­lia de la Rosa, who runs a bed- and- break­fast called La Rosa de Ortega with her hus­band, Sil­vio Ortega, the po­ten­tial for fewer Amer­i­can vis­i­tors is dis­cour­ag­ing. For the past two decades, they have grad­u­ally ren­o­vated an old man­sion that was in ru­ins when they be­gan, adding guest rooms and strug­gling to find parts to get the swim­ming pool fil­ter run­ning again.

When Airbnb, the peer-topeer rental ser­vice, launched in Cuba in 2015, the cou­ple listed La Rosa de Ortega and saw the num­ber of Amer­i­can vis­i­tors climb. Since it en­tered the Cuban mar­ket, Airbnb says its Cuban hosts have earned nearly $40 mil­lion and that the book­ing agency has 22,000 list­ings in 70 towns and ci­ties across Cuba.

The cou­ple now rents out 10 rooms dec­o­rated with vin­tage fur­ni­ture and crisp, white bed­ding. Seventy-five per­cent of their guests are Amer­i­cans.

“That’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent from a few years ago, and in­di­vid­ual peo­ple-to-peo­ple is the cat­e­gory that most of my Amer­i­can guests use to travel to Cuba,” de la Rosa said.

“This ab­so­lutely will have an im­pact,” she said. “When I read the points in the [Trump] mem­o­ran­dum and came to the elim­i­na­tion of in­di­vid­ual peo­ple-to-peo­ple travel, my blood ran cold.”

De la Rosa also said she sees the emphasis on U.S. trav­el­ers keep­ing re­ceipts and records of their trips to Cuba for five years as a tac­tic of in­tim­i­da­tion.

“Be­sides that, I’m afraid that those who lis­tened to Trump’s speech will start to feel Cuba is an in­hos­pitable place,” she said. “Un­for­tu­nately, I don’t think the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in the United States un­der­stand how the Cuban pop­u­la­tion can be af­fected by these mea­sures.”

Be­cause their house is lo­cated in La Vi­b­ora, a neigh­bor­hood on the out­skirts of Havana, and it’s some­times a bit hard for guests to get around, she and her hus­band de­cided to start a rental car agency. They bought 11 old cars that are in var­i­ous stages of be­ing re­paired. Now she says they may scale back their plans.

De la Rosa said the new travel pol­icy won’t just have an im­pact on her and her hus­band; it also will af­fect their 17 em­ploy­ees and the pri­vate sub­con­trac­tors she uses to do ev­ery­thing from car­pen­try work to wash­ing and press­ing clothes for guests.

“[The self-em­ployed] have cre­ated a net­work,” she said. “We reg­u­larly seek out each other’s ser­vices to solve our prob­lems.”

Mean­while, the long days of sum­mer have been a slow time at Finca Los Colorados, a restau­rant and five-room be­dand-break­fast that sits above Ran­cho Luna Beach out­side Cien­fue­gos. Pro­pri­etor Jose Pineiro Guardi­ola said he re­cently no­ticed that 50 peo­ple viewed his prop­erty on Airbnb one day, but not one of those view­ings con­verted into a reser­va­tion. “I watched the Ce­lestyal cruise ship go by re­cently, and it didn’t seem very full to me,” he said.

Nonethe­less, Pineiro said he sup­ports Trump’s new Cuba pol­icy.

“I like it,” he said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “He gives in­struc­tions, a road map, on how Cuba can have a bet­ter re­la­tion­ship with the United States. I think Trump is an in­tel­li­gent man. As a busi­ness­man, he knows what he is do­ing.”

He said he doesn’t be­lieve his busi­ness will be im­pacted much by the new pol­icy be­cause the Amer­i­cans he gen­er­ally hosts are on small cul­tural or ed­u­ca­tional trips and aren’t in­di­vid­ual trav­el­ers. Pineiro said he can ac­com­mo­date groups of up to five peo­ple.

But Phil Peters, a con­sul­tant and pres­i­dent of the Cuba Re­search Cen­ter, said most Cuban homes are small and won’t be able to han­dle group travel.

“It’s harder if you have 20 peo­ple and need to run a sched­uled pro­gram. You can’t have a tour bus stop at 10 dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions to pick up group mem­bers. It’s a lit­tle im­prac­ti­cal,” he said.

The ex­cep­tions, he said, are tourist towns such as Trinidad or Vi­nales, where it seems like al­most ev­ery other house is a va­ca­tion rental. The three staterun ho­tels in Vi­nales, a small ru­ral town near dra­matic rock for­ma­tions and caves, have a com­bined to­tal of 193 rooms, while there are 1,107 pri­vate bed-and-break­fasts, many that have two or three rooms.

Mi­ami Her­ald/MIMI WHITEFIELD

Ju­lia de la Rosa and her hus­band, Sil­vio Ortega, run La Rosa de Ortega bed-and-break­fast on the out­skirts of Havana. She said it’s dis­cour­ag­ing that the new Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion pol­icy means she will likely see fewer Amer­i­can tourists.

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