Post-shift, Cuba ex­pe­ri­enc­ing steep de­cline in U.S. trav­el­ers

Re­stric­tions aimed at com­mu­nist gov’t hurt tourism

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Rick Jervis

U.S. cruise ships still call on Cuban ports, and U.S. air­lines, such as Amer­i­can and South­west, still list Ha­vana and Ca­m­aguey as des­ti­na­tions.

But Cuba — not long ago bustling with good-tip­ping, heavy-spend­ing Amer­i­cans — is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a steep de­cline in U.S. trav­el­ers.

Rea­sons vary, in­clud­ing new re­stric­tions on travel im­posed by Pres­i­dent Trump and Hur­ri­cane Irma’s brush with the is­land last year. But the main rea­son fewer Amer­i­cans are trav­el­ing to the

“Very lit­tle changed to the reg­u­la­tions. But the mes­sage has had a much big­ger im­pact.”

Tom Pop­per

Pres­i­dent of In­sightCuba, a New York-based tour op­er­a­tor that or­ga­nizes trips to Cuba

is­land is one of per­cep­tion, said Tom Pop­per, pres­i­dent of In­sightCuba, a New York-based tour op­er­a­tor that or­ga­nizes trips to Cuba.

On April 19, Raul Castro is ex­pected to step down as pres­i­dent of Cuba and be re­placed by Vice Pres­i­dent Miguel DíazCanel — a move not ex­pected to af­fect the dearth of U.S. vis­i­tors to Cuba.

Trump has taken a more ag­gres­sive stance against the Castro-led gov­ern­ment, mak­ing U.S. vis­i­tors hes­i­tant to travel to the is­land, Pop­per said.

“Very lit­tle changed to the reg­u­la­tions,” said Pop­per, who is pro­ject­ing a 25%-30% drop in passengers to Cuba this year. “But the mes­sage has had a much big­ger im­pact.”

Amer­i­cans ea­gerly be­gan stream­ing to Cuba shortly af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama an­nounced a dé­tente be­tween the U.S. and Cuba in 2014. Air­lines were al­lowed to fly to Cuba, and cruise ships be­gan dock­ing at the Bay of Ha­vana. Airbnb spread through the is­land, mak­ing it even eas­ier for U.S. trav­el­ers.

Trump re­versed some of Obama’s poli­cies, in­clud­ing re­strict­ing “peo­pleto-peo­ple” visas that many Amer­i­cans were us­ing to ven­ture to the is­land. The U.S. main­tains an eco­nomic em­bargo against Cuba that pro­hibits travel there solely for tourism, though there are other cat­e­gories un­der which trav­el­ers can visit the is­land.

But other Obama changes, such as al­low­ing cruise ships and air­lines to travel to Cuba, were left un­touched.

“The pub­lic is pre­sum­ing, based on the an­nounce­ments (last year), that reg­u­la­tions have changed sig­nif­i­cantly,” Pop­per said. “But what we’re look­ing at is re­ally much of the same op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to legally travel to Cuba.”

The num­ber of Amer­i­can trav­el­ers to Cuba rose to 619,000 last year, more than six times the pre-Obama level, ac­cord­ing to Cuban fig­ures ob­tained by the As­so­ci­ated Press. But amid the boom — an 18% in­crease over 2016 — own­ers of pri­vate restau­rants and be­dand-break­fasts are re­port­ing a sharp drop-off.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has said the roll­back of Obama’s Cuba poli­cies is aimed at cut­ting off dol­lars to the Cuban gov­ern­ment, which con­trols many tourist des­ti­na­tions, and di­vert­ing them to in­di­vid­ual Cuban en­trepreneurs. But the changes have sig­nif­i­cantly cut down the num­ber of U.S. trav­el­ers there and made it harder on bud­ding Cuban be­dand-break­fast and restau­rant own­ers on the is­land, said Ted Henken, a Barush Col­lege Latino stud­ies pro­fes­sor with ex­per­tise on Cuba.

“It might shift a small per­cent­age of peo­ple to the pri­vate sec­tor, but it’s go­com­mu­nist

Trump’s pol­icy “might shift a small per­cent­age of peo­ple to the pri­vate sec­tor, but it’s go­ing to do that at the cost of sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing the over­all flow of peo­ple go­ing. You’re giv­ing them a larger slice of a sig­nif­i­cantly smaller pie.”

Ted Henken

Pro­fes­sor of Latino stud­ies with ex­per­tise on Cuba at Barush Col­lege

ing to do that at the cost of sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing the over­all flow of peo­ple go­ing,” he said. “You’re giv­ing them a larger slice of a sig­nif­i­cantly smaller pie.”

Also, U.S. of­fi­cials last year accused Cuba of “sonic at­tacks” on U.S. diplo­mats on the is­land, and the State Depart­ment is­sued an ad­vi­sory warn­ing Amer­i­cans not to travel to Cuba in lieu of the mys­te­ri­ous at­tacks, which had a damp­en­ing ef­fect on U.S. vis­i­tors to Cuba, in­dus­try of­fi­cials said.

Den­sil Richard­son, who runs a be­dand-break­fast in Cen­tral Ha­vana, said he has felt the steep drop in U.S. vis­i­tors. Shortly af­ter Obama’s an­nounce­ment, his four-bed­room build­ing would fill with about 80% Amer­i­cans. These days, they make up less than 5% of his clien­tele.

The Amer­i­cans would only stay a few days at a time — far less than the 15 to 20 days Euro­peans or Aus­tralians tend to stay — but spent much more on lo­cal restau­rants, taxis and shops and were much bet­ter tip­pers, Richard­son said. Some of his friends who owned bed-and-break­fasts have closed since the Amer­i­cans stopped com­ing as much, he said.

“They feel their ab­sence,” he said. Pop­per, of In­sightCuba, said he hopes trav­el­ers re­al­ize not much has changed, and it’s still very pos­si­ble to travel to Cuba. It just may take a few more phone calls.

“You can have a com­pany do ev­ery­thing for you — or part of it — and you can still see Cuba on your own,” Pop­per said.

RA­MON ESPINOSA/AP

A Car­ni­val ship ar­rives in Ha­vana. Cruise lines have seen no change in Cuba pol­icy in the Trump era.

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