What You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now What You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now

What You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now

Travel June 12, 2017 globalnewsgrid 0

That would turn the clock back to the days before the détente, when most Americans could visit Cuba only as part of an organized... What You Need to Know About Traveling to Cuba Now

That would turn the clock back to the days before the détente, when most Americans could visit Cuba only as part of an organized group rather than under their own steam — making travel to the island more costly and less spontaneous.

Philip Peters, the president of the Cuba Research Center, who has taken dozens of groups to the island, predicted “a decline in American travel to Cuba” if new regulations made going to the island “more expensive and more cumbersome.”

Stricter rules might also spook potential travelers, said Michael Sykes, president of Cuba Cultural Travel, which has organized travel to the island for decades.

“Americans want to abide by the law,” he said. “If there’s any kind of doubt or suspicion that they’re doing something that’s not right, they won’t go.”

Still, travel to Cuba before the countries restored relations was easier than many Americans realized, Cuba travel experts noted. It may become a question of doing more homework to make sure your purpose for travel fits one of the permitted categories.

And when Americans do go to Cuba, their chances of staying in an American-run hotel may be about to shrink.

The new regulations may ban American companies from entering into commercial agreements with companies linked to or run by the Cuban military.

Given that several hotel brands in Cuba come under the umbrella of the military-run conglomerate known as Gaesa , that would reduce the scope for deals to manage Cuban hotel properties — like the one made with Starwood last year.

Conscious of the crimp that new restrictions would place on their burgeoning business, 40-odd travel organizations in May signed a letter to President Trump that outlined the business, political and cultural benefits of travel to the island.

Travel to Cuba can be confusing in the best of times, and uncertainty about possible policy changes makes planning a trip there more challenging. Here are answers to some of the questions people have right now:

In what way will President Trump make it harder for Americans to travel to Cuba?

That is not yet clear. But it appears likely that Americans will no longer be able to travel to Cuba without a specific license or outside an organized group. Instead, they would have to travel with an organization that holds a license to take groups to Cuba or apply to the Treasury Department for a license to travel independently for, say, religious reasons.

So, instead of booking a flight with JetBlue and reserving a room online, those wanting to visit Cuba will have to look up a travel organization that offers trips, such as Smithsonian Journeys, Cuba Educational Travel and the Center for Cuban Studies.

Licensed travel would most likely continue to be permitted under 12 categories, which include visits to close relatives, academic programs, professional research, humanitarian, journalistic or religious activities and participation in public performances or sports competitions.

Under the regulations being considered by the Trump administration, ordinary tourism would remain off limits.

What are people-to-people trips?

People-to-people trips are the most popular category of travel. Anybody can take one so long as they include a full-time schedule of activities that produce “meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

Organized trips — which cost about $2,500 to $5,000 a week including accommodations and flights — usually entail back-to-back meetings, lectures and visits to artists’ studios or small businesses or community projects.

Since January 2015, Americans can make these independently or with a tour operator. If they were still permitted under the new rules, Americans would have to go as part of a group.

Travel representatives argue that independent travel creates the most opportunities for interaction with Cubans and funnels more money into their hands. Groups usually stay at state-run hotels rather than private homes, so the changes would hit Cuban homeowners and Airbnb.

“If you’re trying to help the Cuban people, taking away individual travel” makes no sense, said Mr. Sykes.

Who will care what I do in Cuba?

Over the past two years, nobody seems to have been keeping tabs on which Americans go to Cuba or what they do there, even though senior officials at the Treasury and Commerce Departments said they took travel restrictions seriously.

But scrutiny often increases with a change in the political winds. Officials may become more stringent about American travelers who they suspect of going to Cuba to enjoy the beaches. Travelers — who are supposed to keep records of their activities in Cuba for five years — may be asked to produce those documents. If you sign an affidavit saying you are going to Cuba for a particular purpose and, in fact, spend a week at the beach, you would be breaking the law.

John Caulfield, who was the chief of the United States mission to Cuba from 2011 to 2014, believes Americans should pursue culture in Cuba, rather than break the rules and go to the beach.

“Cuba is very interesting culturally,” he said. “It’s not your typical beach island. Art, dance, culture — that’s what Cuba has to sell.”

How do I get a visa?

Most visitors to Cuba, including Americans, need a tourist card to enter the country. If you are traveling with an organization or on a charter flight, they will normally process the tourist card as part of the package. JetBlue will provide travelers with a tourist visa, at a cost of $50, at the airport check-in — also common practice among airlines flying to Cuba from outside the United States.

Can I fly to Cuba on a commercial flight?

Yes. As of August, commercial airlines are offering flights to several destinations in Cuba, including Holguín, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

However, after a rush to snap up routes last year, some airlines — including JetBlue and American Airlines — scaled back the number of flights they offered or began using smaller planes because of insufficient demand.

Silver Airways, a Fort Lauderdale-based regional carrier, scrapped its flights to Cuba altogether in April. Frontier Airlines has also canceled its Havana-bound flights from Miami and Denver.

Still, JetBlue has daily flights from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, Holguín, Camaguey and Havana. American Airlines flies from Miami to the same Cuban cities, as well Cienfuegos and the beach resort of Varadero, and Delta has direct flights to Havana from New York, Atlanta and Miami.

With round-trip flights to Cuba priced at under $300 in June, the commercial flights are much less expensive than charters, which, for decades, were the only option for those wanting to travel direct between the United States and Cuba.

Where would I stay?

Cuba has a shortage of decent hotels, a problem that has worsened over the past year.

But that is changing. The Switzerland-based Kempinski Hotels this month opened the country’s first five-star property, the Gran Hotel Manzana, complete with a fancy shopping mall, in downtown Havana.

And Starwood in June became the first American hospitality chain to manage a hotel in Cuba since the revolution, rebranding a 180-room hotel in the suburb of Miramar as a Four Points by Sheraton hotel. Marriott, which is buying Starwood, has reportedly confirmed that it is in talks about taking over other Havana hotels.

Certainly, the hotel sector could use a face-lift. There are currently about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba, according to the tourism ministry, of which 65 percent carry four- and five-star ratings. Many of those, despite high price tags, are in a poor state of repair, the Starwood property included.

Bed-and-breakfasts are an attractive alternative to hotels, as they include the chance to interact with Cuban families and often provide good meals. There are hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts, known as casas particulares, in Havana and popular tourist towns like Trinidad, Viñales and Cienfuegos. Searching for casas on the internet is not easy, but you can book them through travel agents like Cubania Travel or look on TripAdvisor, or Airbnb, which started offering its service on the island last year.

Could I take a cruise instead?

You could. Carnival Cruises in May 2016 began offering the first cruises between Miami and Havana in 40 years. The seven-night cruise, operated by Carnival’s Fathom Brand, sails every other week and stops at Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Cruise companies may offer services between the United States and Cuba under Treasury Department rules, but, so far, only Carnival and a French company, Ponant, have announced cruises to Cuba from American ports.

Ferries — once a vital connection between Cuba and Miami — seem to be off the table for the moment. Ferry services are permitted under United States regulations, but operators have yet to receive the necessary permits from the Cuban authorities.

Can I use credit cards?

American travelers to Cuba may open a bank account there and pay for expenses with an American credit card. In reality, few people who take the short trip abroad have cause to open a bank account. A.T.M.s are few and far between in Cuba, and many establishments are unable to process credit card payments. So cash will be king for some time to come.

Cuba charges a 10 percent “tax” on the United States dollar, so it is a good idea to take British pounds or euros, which get a better exchange rate in Cuba than the United States dollar.

How do I call home?

Calls on the Etecsa network, the Cuban state-owned telecommunications company, are expensive, and buying a temporary phone can involve long lines. Sprint and Verizon Wireless have roaming agreements in Cuba, and T-Mobile and AT&T announced last year that they, too, will offer roaming. At more than $2 per minute for voice calls, you will not linger on the line.

Etecsa now has dozens of Wi-Fi spots around Havana and other cities, meaning you can, in theory, make a VoIP call, as long as half of Cuba isn’t trying to do the same thing.

What can United States citizens bring back?

As of October 2016, Americans can bring back an unlimited number of souvenirs and cigars, provided they are for personal use (subject to normal customs duty). John Kavulich, U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council president, noted that, according to State Department records, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who inaugurated the embassy in Havana in August 2015, brought back an $80 humidor, $80 worth of cigars and a bottle of rum.

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