Warning may slow Tampa-Havana travel
TAMPA — Despite a promise in June from President Donald Trump that he would impose stricter regulations on Cuba travel, the number of people shuttling by air and sea between Tampa and Havana has continued to rise.
Still, as they’ve waited for the regulations to become official, local travel agents were jittery about the future for this new market.
One shoe finally dropped Friday.
Citing concerns about mysterious health problems including brain injury and hearing loss by U.S. diplomats in Havana, the State Department warned Americans against visiting the island and ordered home more than half the personnel at its newly reestablished embassy in Havana.
“This is going to hurt business,” said Frank Reno, president of Tampa’s Cuba Executive Travel. “Any time Americans are warned not to go somewhere — whether downtown Miami or downtown Havana — they stay away due to fear and anxiety.”
One theory is that the health problems arise from some type of covert attack — sonic weapons, perhaps.
The State Department says some of the attacks have occurred in Cuban hotels so American tourists might be exposed, though there’s no sign that has happened yet.
“Let’s hope the investigation will shed some light on the source of these attacks and bring justice for the compromised health of our diplomats,” said Suzanne Carlson, founder Tarpon Springs’ Carlson Maritime Travel.
But even if it does, some agents say, it could dampen the pentup interest in Cuba among Americans denied the chance to travel there for decades.
“Ultimately, the decision taken today by the State Department of the United States could only affect the American travelers . . . who in the last few years were discovering an adorable and near Cuba in which they could feel safe,” said Vicente Amor, Cubaborn vice president of Tampa travel company ASC International USA.
Whoever is to blame, Amor added, it is clear to him that “this incident has been designed to affect the travel and the general progress of the bilateral relations between U.S. and Cuba.”
Still, Tampa’s large CubanAmerican population gives him confidence the Cuba travel market could continue to grow. What’s more, he said, locals will want to maintain a role in improving relations between the nations.
The travel industry is still waiting for another shoe to drop: No regulations have yet been issued to follow up on two restrictions Trump announced in June.
One is that Americans visiting Cuba for educational purposes — the most popular of 12 categories of Cuba travel designated under U.S. law — will not be allowed to travel on their own as they could before but only in certified tour groups.
Under the other restriction, U.S. citizens will no longer be allowed to stay in hotels owned by the Cuban military, which