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Biden’s revised Cuba policy creates more options for U.S. travelers

The United States just approved flights to airports beyond Havana and will restore the group tours banned under Trump

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Americans who want to travel legally to Cuba will have more options after the Biden administration announced it was undoing some of the restrictions President Donald Trump imposed before the pandemic.

While a timeline for all of the changes is not yet clear, travelers should eventually be able to choose from flights to more destinations and take the kind of group-based educational trips that have been off-limits for nearly three years.

Under an order issued Wednesday by the U.S. Transportation Department, airlines will again be allowed to fly to Cuban destinations beyond Havana, an avenue that was cut off in late 2019. Public charter flights will also be permitted to go to airports outside Havana after being suspended in early 2020.

The Transportation Department issued the order rescinding the Trump-era restrictions after a request this week from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He wrote that scheduled and charter air services could resume “effective immediately” once the department took action.

That formal request followed a May 16 announcement that the Biden administration was taking measures, including allowing the additional flights, to “increase support for the Cuban people in line with our national security interests.”

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Peggy Goldman, president and co-owner of two travel companies that bring visitors to Cuba — Friendly Planet and Insight Cuba — called the permission to add flights “wonderful news.”

“It makes it possible to enjoy much more of the island, and having these additional flights is a hallelujah moment for us,” she said. She added that her companies have been “badgering” airlines on a daily basis about increasing service.

U.S. carriers that offer scheduled flights to Havana, including American Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest, told The Washington Post this week — before the DOT’s order — that they did not have any additional services to announce. American Airlines flew to five destinations in addition to Havana until December 2019, and JetBlue once flew to three cities beyond the capital city.

“While we do not have any news to share at this time regarding changes to our operations in Cuba, we regularly evaluate new opportunities throughout our network,” JetBlue said in a statement.

Cuba reopened to visitors in November after closing its borders earlier in the pandemic.

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U.S. officials have said that a popular authorized way for groups of travelers to visit Cuba — called “people-to-people” trips — will be back at some point. The Trump administration eliminated the option in mid-2019. The State Department said it would reinstate the option, along with other categories of group educational travel and some additional travel connected to professional meetings and research.

“We’ll certainly ensure travel is purposeful and in accordance with U.S. law. And we’ll note something that President Biden had said often, which is his belief that Americans are the best ambassadors for democratic values,” a senior administration official said on background during a press call last month. “And facilitating group people-to-people travel will allow for greater engagement between the American people and the promotion of their democratic values.”

The State Department did not release a timeline for reopening that category of travel, but it said in a statement that the administration is “working expeditiously to implement these changes, via regulatory amendments and other steps on an expedited basis.”

Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel, said people-to-people trips were a prominent way to visit Cuba before the Trump administration prohibited them. He described those trips as “having a full-time schedule that involves meaningful interaction with the Cuban people” — though independent tourism is not allowed.

Americans have been allowed to visit the island under categories that remain legal, including family visits, religious activities, competitions, educational activities and professional research, and meetings. After the Trump administration eliminated the “people to people” option, first for individuals and then for groups, most travelers opted to visit under the “support for the Cuban people” category.

Under that option, travelers need to have a full-time schedule of activities that enhance contact with locals, support civil society in Cuba, result in meaningful interaction with residents or promote independence from Cuban authorities, The Washington Post reported in 2019.

2019: Trump administration ends group travel to Cuba by Americans

The two categories were similar, but supporting the Cuban people required more direct aid to locals on the ground. Some tour operators told The Post when the changes were first announced a few years ago that they were skipping attractions such as Ernest Hemingway’s house and famous cemeteries. To keep their programming in compliance, they said, they would meet with craftspeople who make humidors instead of going to cigar factories, and they would visit artists in a studio cooperative instead of going to a museum.

David Lee, founder of Cultural Cuba, has always provided trips that meet the requirements of supporting the Cuban people and calls it “the best way to go by far.” But still, he and others said, the news about Trump restrictions being dropped had led to an increase in inquiries.

“Some of the changes that the Trump administration made definitely made people think they could not come to Cuba,” he said. “If this announcement has people believing, ‘Oh, it’s open again’ — even though it was always open ... and at least leads people to put Cuba back on their list as a destination, awesome.”

Laverty said he expects the return of U.S. travelers to Cuba to be slow, noting that he doesn’t see any regulatory changes that would lead to an “avalanche” in demand.

While the Biden administration’s goal is to expand authorized travel to Cuba, the State Department said the recently announced moves are not a return to the Obama-era policies that allowed cruise ships to visit the island and individual travelers to embark on people-to-people trips.

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Other Trump crackdowns prohibiting travelers from staying in military- or government-owned hotels remain in effect. They pose continued challenges to travelers and tour groups who have to find accommodations without those government or military ties.

“With new flights and group People to People programs being announced, more travelers will be able to visit Cuba safely but they will need more safe places to stay,” Michael Zuccato, CEO of Cuba Travel Services, said in an email.

Laverty said the last decade has brought “incredible development” in private-sector lodging, including privately owned apartments, rooms and boutique hotels. His company will sometimes split groups between multiple properties if needed.

“It definitely adds an extra logistical layer,” he said. “Trying to look at the positive side, it’s a really cool experience” where guests get to interact with their host and learn more about what it’s like to live in Cuba.

With economic hardships and severe shortages in Cuba that led to widespread protests last year, Laverty said he was concerned about what the travel experience would be like when his company started bringing Americans back earlier this year.

“What we’ve found over the last few months is U.S. travelers have really been exposed to shortcomings and challenges and also support Cubans through their travel and get an honest picture of the good and the bad in Cuba and still have a really great experience,” he said.