The American traveler in Cuba — sweating, disoriented and probably a bit woozy from the rum drinks — is once more at the heart of the struggle for the island’s future.
Central to President Trump’s plans to peel back his predecessor’s detente with Cuba is the idea that there is “good” and “bad” U.S. travel. The United States, Trump believes, can tightly regulate American vacations to deprive the Castro government of dollars and redirect the money to the island’s growing class of entrepreneurs.
But it will be difficult to pick winners in Cuba’s state-controlled economy, where government businesses and the private sector are thoroughly intertwined. And even harder will be determining what sort of travel constitutes the kind of “people-to-people” interactions the Trump administration says it wants to preserve.
By reinstating restrictions on independent travelers, the Trump administration’s new policy will hurt Cuba’s emerging private sector that caters to American visitors, critics insist.
Instead, the new rules will herd Americans back toward the kind of prepackaged, predictable group tourism that the Cuban government actually prefers — and earns more revenue from.
“I think if you come here on a package tour, you see what the Cuban government wants you to see,” said Andrew Sleyko, 36, a food scientist from Chicago who was visiting the island for the first time as Trump announced his new policy.
Sleyko and a friend had booked rooms through Airbnb and were spending their days walking around the city in the muggy heat.
“We’re talking to people wherever we go,” he said. “Isn’t that the idea of people-to-people?”
The Trump plan, announced Friday in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, asserts that the Obama-era rules facilitated what the White House called “illegal” tourism as more U.S. travelers booked their own trips by renting rooms in Cuban homes through sites such as Airbnb.
While the law still allows certain American travelers to visit as individuals for religious, professional or other purposes, it eliminates the “individual educational” category that quickly became the most popular way to go to Cuba without booking a group tour.
Americans will generally still be allowed to visit Cuba if they come on cruise ships, for instance, or book with U.S.-approved tour agencies that ensure travel itineraries do not include too much unstructured time.
The complication for Trump’s rules, however, is that large tour groups are too big for smaller bed-and-breakfast rentals, and their government-appointed guides tend to ply the well-trodden routes that bypass the new galleries, restaurants and night spots opened by enterprising Cubans and others after the openings spurred by Obama.
That, in turn, will cause a ripple effect.
“If independent American travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the bed-and-breakfasts. It’s also the construction crews, the private tour guides, the taxi drivers, the restaurants and the artists selling handicrafts,” said Andrea Gallina, an Italian entrepreneur who last year opened a high-end boutique hotel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse.
The 1934 mansion has an Italian restaurant on the ground floor, and Gallina estimates two-thirds of his guests are American, booking rooms through Airbnb, Expedia and other U.S. sites.
“To be honest, Americans don’t have time to go to the beach, because they get absorbed into the city,” he said. “Independent travelers have more contact with real Cubans.”
Gallina employs 22 Cuban workers. If his bookings decline because of a travel crackdown, he said, he will probably turn to the European market and “tighten our belts.”
American travel to Cuba has been a political battleground since the early 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the island’s communist government starved for hard currency.
As its resort industry grew and more foreign visitors arrived, the Castro government’s enemies in Miami and in the halls of Congress fought to restrict Americans from going — knowing their dollars could undermine efforts to choke the Cuban economy.
Instead, Cuba’s tourism industry grew on euros and Canadian dollars.
But that’s beginning to change.
The government says it received more than 4 million tourists last year — a record number — of which about 615,000 were U.S. visitors. That includes 330,000 Cuban Americans visiting relatives on the island, but many of the rest were Americans taking advantage of Obama’s landmark moves to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba.
Travel by non-Cuban Americans has been on pace to double this year, according to the latest government data.
But Trump’s rollback is expected to put a brake on that growth. U.S. officials say the new restrictions have yet to be written and will not take effect until then, and Americans who have already booked Cuba travel won’t have to cancel.
Limited economic reforms by Cuban leader Raúl Castro, 86, have allowed Cuban entrepreneurs to buy and sell property and run small businesses, but it was Obama’s normalization measures that kicked the process into overdrive.
In Old Havana’s tourist quarter, entire city blocks of crumbling century-old buildings are being renovated and turned into boutique hostels and chic cafes.
The work is being almost entirely carried out by private sector tradesman and contractors.
“I’ve never been this busy,” said Roberto Claro, a dust-covered construction foreman in Old Havana, whose crew was busy converting a ruined, century-old building into a seafood restaurant. There were two other buildings on the same block also getting an overhaul.
The new rules aim to ban or limit Americans from patronizing military-linked businesses including Cuba’s gargantuan GAESA conglomerate, which is estimated to control more than half of the island’s tourist economy.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said Friday it will provide Americans with a lists of prohibited hotels and other businesses linked to the company so American travelers can steer clear.
U.S. travelers will need to keep detailed records and receipts from their Cuba trips in case of an audit by Treasury Department officials, and that alone could be a deterrent if aggressively enforced.
“The real challenge in implementing will be this,” said Chris Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the director of the website Global Americans. “Monitoring travelers, evaluating who is staying in military-owned hotels, tracking license compliance — all that requires bureaucratic capacity and follow up.”
Because Treasury’s foreign assets division is the same office in charge of enforcing sanctions against countries such as Iran and North Korea, it has come under criticism for devoting resources to investigating the vacation receipts of American travelers who visit Cuba. A bipartisan Senate bill that would completely lift travel restrictions has 55 co-sponsors.
“You or I could travel to any country on the globe and there’s not a federal government prohibition from us doing so — the only restriction is Cuba,” Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told CNN as Trump announced the new measures. “We’re not the Soviet Union. We don’t have to have ‘travel papers’ for the government to decide whether or not you can travel.”
Treasury said it will issue new guidelines in the coming months.
Gallina and others in Havana said they have been flooded with calls and emails from Americans in the past three days asking if they should cancel their trips.