Tips and Articles


By Benito Albisa Novo

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Trump began the rollback on June 16, with regime-change rhetoric and a new directive curtailing the ability of individual US citizens to travel to Cuba. His administration further scared potential travelers by announcing a “travel warning” in late September, tied to the mysterious maladies that affected US Embassy personnel last winter. And on November 9, the US State and Treasury departments issued new rules and regulations on US travel to Cuba, as well as a “Cuba Restricted List” of hotels and stores where those who do travel are prohibited from any commercial transaction. The result is that potential individual US travelers appear confused, scared, and, in too many cases, deterred from coming to Cuba.


Trump’s declared intention behind this decision is to prevent tourist dollars from going to the Cuban military. In practice, however, his policy hurts Cuban entrepreneurs—the very private-sector small businesses that US officials claim to support. Cubans who opened private restaurants that cater to US visitors, who fixed up their homes and began renting them on AirBnB, who are restoring and driving those alluring vintage US cars, and who became guides and fixers for the tens of thousands of US citizens who came to Cuba in 2016 and the first half of 2017, are among those most affected. Those Cubans—I am one of them—bet on, and invested in, the continued growth of American tourism on the island.

President Obama opened the door to that tourism with the expectation that tourist dollars would help expand Cuba’s small private sector. He authorized individual US citizens to designate themselves as “people-to-people” visitors. Trump’s new regulations eliminate that category for individual travelers. Now, all non-academic educational visits under the “people-to-people” licenses must be done through a recognized US group-tour agency. This last point is key, as the individual people-to-people category was the one most commonly used by Americans visiting the island; it was the easiest to obtain, the cheapest way to visit Cuba, and the one that offered the most freedom to travel around the island.


As a result of the US tourist boom that began in 2015, I and my Cuban colleagues founded Cuban Trails, a small, creative tourist agency. We began operating educational and cultural tours in January 2016. In the beginning, our main clients were Canadians and Europeans. But by the second half of 2016, we and a lot of other cuentapropistas in the tourist sector found that the majority of our clientele were US citizens.


It is important to note that none of our US clientele came to Cuba for traditional “sun and beach” tourism. They came to understand Cuban culture and society. They were conscientious travelers, who engaged in true people-to-people tourism.


Indeed, Trump’s measures, along with the travel warning, are severely limiting the function and future of my tour-guide company and many other small businesses on the island. Trump has eliminated the principal category by which my clients came to Cuba. The fact that US citizens must now travel under the auspices of a US tour company hurts me and others economically because now we are limited to being subcontractors, and no longer have the ability to work with clients directly—if at all. American tour agencies have contracts with Cuban government-run agencies and hire them—not those of us who are in the private sector. Last but not least, Trump’s rhetoric and restrictions have created a climate of uncertainly among travelers who are simply choosing to go to other vacation destinations instead of Cuba.

It is high tourist season in Cuba now. But I know restaurateurs whose business is down 60 percent compared to last year. The Cuban small business sector, so dynamic just a few short months ago, is now struggling to survive. Examples of bankruptcies are multiplying throughout the country.

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