Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions


Under the new regulations, individual Americans travelers will no longer be able to visit the island on what are known as people-to-people trips, a popular mode of travel introduced as part of Mr. Obama’s historic thaw. People-to-people trips will now be permitted only for groups and must be organized by a licensed tour operator.

Americans will also be barred from transactions with companies run by the Cuban military — a potentially significant restriction, given that many of Cuba’s branded hotels are managed by a military-owned conglomerate.

The Treasury Department went some way to clarify the new rules on Friday, writing in a statement that the changes would not apply to people who had already booked trips or to existing business deals with the military.

But the new restrictions would put new properties like the Gran Hotel Manzana, managed by Kempinski Hotels but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company, off limits to American travelers. Travel representatives said they would redirect American travelers to hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan — both of which own several properties in Havana.

Exactly how far those restrictions go, however, is unclear. Could a tour organizer rent a bus from a military-run company? What about purchases from a military-run retail store?

Prohibitions of that scope would make organizing group trips to Cuba “impossible,” said Michael Sykes, president of Cuba Cultural Travel.

Tour operators and Cuba experts predicted that the Cuban government would find loopholes. John Caulfield, who was chief of the United States diplomatic mission to Havana from 2011 to 2014, said the government could move tourism assets into the control of civilian ministries.

“In an economy like Cuba’s, they can rename things and change things around,” he said.

Still, even if the new rules were workable, travel representatives said, tighter regulation would put off Americans from traveling to a country still struggling with its tourism infrastructure.

“We were finally getting to a point where there was a sense of normalcy; people felt it was legal to come to Cuba,” Mr. Laverty said. “Now this is pushing us back to a point where Americans don’t know if it’s legal. That will dissuade a lot of Americans.”

Two sectors that were left apparently unscathed by the new policy were cruises and flights: Fees paid by cruise lines and airlines will be exempt from restrictions on doing business with the military.

Marriott International, whose subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar, may also have escaped the crackdown, which the Treasury Department said did not affect existing business deals.

The Havana Sheraton announced on its website on Friday that it would require each guest to complete an affidavit at check-in certifying authorization to travel in Cuba. Marriott said in a statement on Thursday that it was “still analyzing” the policy directive, and its “full effect on our current and planned operations in Cuba.”

The consensus is that those who will suffer most are smaller-scale businesses that rely on individual travel — private bed-and-breakfasts, cafes, restaurants, tour guides and taxis. And fewer individual travelers would also affect commercial airlines, who last year began operating dozens of daily flights to Cuba.

Cuba is Airbnb’s fastest-growing market, with 22,000 rooms registered to its booking site and 70,000 arrivals every month on the island, according to figures published by the company. About 35 percent of Airbnb’s guests in Cuba are American; 12 percent of American travelers to Cuba stay in an Airbnb-listed property.

The company said in a statement on Friday that it was “reviewing what this policy could mean for this type of travel” but was pleased that it would be able to continue to “support Airbnb hosts in Cuba.”

But those hosts are likely to see a decline in demand, travel representatives said.

“Much of the growth has been from people booking from Airbnb and private casas,” said Eddie Lubbers, president of Cuba Travel Network, using the Spanish term for homes. “It’s not just casas — it’s restaurants, it’s private tour guides.”

He added, “It’s going to have an effect.”

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