Cubans fret over U.S. policy shift
Businesses say income to be lost in tourism crackdown
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.
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.