Millions of Cubans on the island watched President Donald Trump’s June 16 announcement with a feeling of sadness, disbelief and a sense of Déjà vu. Once again, political theater in Miami and Washington was filled with false rhetoric about helping the Cuban people, while simultaneously sweeping the rug out from under their feet. It is clear the Trump administration’s new policy will not help Cubans or the Cuban economy. What is left to be seen is exactly how much damage it will cause.
In terms of the new travel restrictions, Cubans across the board are bound to suffer. The growing private sector in Cuba has seen incredible growth as a result of internal reforms and increased U.S. visits, with bed and breakfasts, restaurants, car services, and independent travel guides popping up left and right. Knowing that visiting Americans must take part in people-to-people activities, many Cuban entrepreneurs even adapted their business models to individual U.S. travelers seeking those types of experiences. Many businesses not in the hospitality sector cater mainly to Cuban entrepreneurs and state workers in that space, meaning they will also be hit by the decline in visitors.
Cubans working for the state, who depend on tips to survive, are very nervous about the potential dwindling number of Americans, commonly referred to as most generous visitor. Moreover, tourism earnings, whether through taxes on the private sector or direct payments to the state sector, are redistributed through the federal budget and used for education, health care, and other government spending, affecting all 11 million Cubans. Nobody in Cuba is excited about the new policy.
Between January and June 2017, 346,000 Americans visited Cuba, a 149 percent increase from the same period in 2016. This is in addition to 207,000 Cuban Americans, putting the U.S on pace to soon surpass Canada as the largest source of visitors to the island. Americans finally felt like it was okay, normal, and legal to book a flight with a major airline and head off to Cuba. That psychological element has had a tremendous impact on how many people visit, and we were finally making progress. President Obama led by example, traveling with his whole family, sending a message that we should visit, engage, and make friends.
The new restrictions will certainly reduce the number of visiting Americans. The rhetoric surrounding the announcement about audits, fines, and banned hotels scares law-abiding Americans who don’t want to look over their shoulder while planning a holiday. Confusion over what you can and can’t do, and what the requirements are, will deter many would-be travelers.
Expect increased complications for companies working in the space as well. Internal compliance departments at banks will get tougher with companies doing business with Cuba, making transactions more costly and complicated. Cuban entrepreneurs can expect challenges visiting the U.S., opening bank accounts, and processing transactions.
Despite the obstacles, Americans will continue to visit and Cubans will continue to welcome them with open arms. Many will visit on cruises, tours, study trips, conferences, and other approved categories of travel. Dozens of highly specialized organizations like my own Cuba Educational Travel will continue to offer experiences for small groups that want flexibility, intimacy, and color not obtainable with larger, more generic experiences. And the Cuban people will do what they have done for decades: open up their homes, offer unique experiences, and build long-lasting friendships.
Collin Laverty is the president of Cuba Educational Travel.