Travel companies call Cuba “safest country” in the world

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Tom Mazza playing maracas on a recent trip to Cuba. Photo by: Rachael Mazza.

Afraid to visit Cuba? No reason to worry, say the travel companies who take Americans to the “safest country” in the world.

Rachael Mazza thought twice about taking her long-awaited trip to Cuba when she heard about U.S. travel warnings and U.S. diplomats suffering strange ailments from alleged sonic attacks.

But when her travel company and friends who know Cuba assured her the island was safe, she and her husband Tom flew out from New York to enjoy a week in January sharing with the Cuban people: visiting organic farms, artist studios and more, while dining at private restaurants and staying at private homes.

The Mazzas couldn’t get over Cubans’ hospitality – how their guide paid from her own pocket to buy Tom a hat when the sun got strong, how farmers made a huge meal for everyone, and how the restauranteur brought them an after-dinner drink on the house. Even when assigned a room they didn’t like in one town, the couple was easily relocated, with their Cuban hosts calm and accommodating.

“I’d absolutely love to go back,” said Mazza, a newly retired entrepreneur. “I’d go in a New York minute.”

That positive message is what U.S. travel companies active in Cuba want Americans to hear: Cuba is welcoming, safe, fun and legal. Come visit.

On Jan. 29, some 30 U.S. travel companies gathered in Havana to share that message, as the Trump administration’s tougher stance on Cuba has prompted some Americans to stay away. Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, organized the inaugural Media Day, accompanied by a cross section of U.S. travel businesses from airlines to cruise lines to tour operators.

Popper bemoaned an “almost a perfect storm of bad headlines that took Cuba from one of the most popular travel destinations to one mired in confusion and questions.” Among the headlines: June’s Trump announcement reversing Obama’s engagement policy; September’s U.S. State Department travel warnings against Cuba; and November’s regulations banning direct payments to Cuban military-linked hotels and shops.

But Popper and other panelists distinguished the tough rhetoric from actual rules. For starters, Americans can still travel legally to Cuba under 12 categories. They can still make people-to-people trips in groups with an authorized company. And while individuals no longer can travel on people-to-people educational visits, they can still travel on their own through the category called “support for the Cuban people.” It remains perfectly legal for a solo traveler to stay in a private inn, eat at private restaurants and enjoy – without a group.

What’s more, American groups and individuals can even stay in military-linked hotels on the restricted list if they pay through an overseas tour operator or other unrestricted entities, said U.S. attorney Lindsey Frank. “There’s a lot of misinformation,” Frank of RBSKL law firm in New York told reporters. “There have been very few substantive changes to the regulations on Cuba.”

U.S. travel warnings do not mean Cuba is unsafe, either. The State Department issued its warning after alleged “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats, but a Jan. 4 report from the FBI found no evidence that sound waves could have damaged Americans’ health.

Researchers in a mid-February report in the Journal of American Medical Association also said audible sounds don’t usually cause the kind of brain injuries they found in the U.S. diplomats they examined, though they could not pinpoint the cause of the ailments.

Some Canadian diplomats also reportedly suffered ailments, but Canada has not issued a warning and Canadians still flock to Cuba. Indeed, on Jan. 18, the Madrid International Tourism Fair (Fitur) gave Cuba its excellence award as the “safest country” in the world. “For those of us who work in Cuba and bring U.S. travelers here every day, we can personally attest that Cuba remains safe,” said Popper, a frequent visitor.

Furthermore, there’s been no increased enforcement of rules for U.S. travel, either by airport security, increased budgets, or in requests that travelers produce records for their trips, panelists told reporters. “There’s perception and reality,” Popper told the group. “Perception can be more damaging than the reality, and that’s what we’re faced with now.”

Before Trump’s tougher stance, Cuba had been earning top marks for U.S. travel. Surveys of U.S. visitors found that nearly 40 percent were repeaters and 96 percent would recommend the island, said panelist Jose Bisbe York, president of Viajes Cuba, the state group that handles much of Cuba’s incoming travel. “You would not recommend to your friends and relatives a place not safe to go,” Bisbe told the media.

At the U.S. Tour Operators Association, a 2015 survey of members found Cuba the No. 1 emerging destination to watch. A 2016 poll found Cuba both the top emerging and hottest destination, “the first time in history a single country was both,” said association president Terry Dale. But in 2017, Cuba dropped from both lists to fall among “destinations most at risk,” as U.S. sales dipped, said Dale. His message: “Cuba is open for business. It’s safe, it’s legal, it’s amazing.”

Yet confusion over new U.S. rules is hitting hard. At the Melia Cohiba hotel in Havana, a favorite among U.S. business travelers, U.S. stays declined about 25 percent in December and January from a year earlier, said panelist Francisco Camps, deputy director for Melia Cuba. Visits by Americans not of Cuban heritage fell roughly 30 percent in December, partly because of concerns over damage from Hurricane Irma, said Bisbe. All major hotels were repaired by November, he said.

Private entrepreneurs are feeling the sting. At California Café near Havana’s famed Hotel Nacional, U.S. business is down by about half these days, said co-owner Shona Baum, a U.S. social worker who moved with her Cuban husband from San Francisco to open the restaurant. Americans are known to spend more and tip more than most groups, so employees are hurting. The café is putting expansion plans on hold. “We’re basically thrown back to where we were three or four years ago,” said Baum, “but there are so many more businesses now and not enough visitors to fill them.” Americans arriving on cruises tend to stay just a day or two in Havana, and spend less than those who fly in and stay at hotels or private homes, said Baum.

Popper and his peers hope their message spreads widely that U.S. travel to Cuba is legal, safe and welcome. Cuba’s Bisbe is optimistic for an upturn later this year, as word gets out in the United States. And Mazza, now happily sharing Cuba stories and photos with friends and family, is glad she didn’t let the headlines keep her away.

-Harold Maass contributed to this report. 

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