With its brightly-colored colonial houses and rattling old cars, Cuba has long captured the American imagination. But the regulations on travel to the Communist country have changed from one government to the next, making it hard for any vacationer to keep up.
On June 5, 2019, the Trump administration cracked down on the most popular ways for Americans to travel to Cuba, banning all cruise ships operating between the United States and the Caribbean island and eliminating the heavily-used educational category of travel called “people-to-people” exchanges.
It is a setback for American tourism to the island, but 12 categories of travel are still valid, including family visits for Cuban-Americans, professional research, journalism, religious activities, athletic competitions, and ‘Support of the Cuban People’.
Here are five reasons why travelers should still consider the island a destination, despite these new hurdles.
Despite increased restrictions, there are still legal ways to travel to Cuba. But with the Trump administration continuously changing regulations, who knows how much longer this will be the case. Many tour operators are already offering trips under the “Support for the Cuban People” category, which requires travelers to have an itinerary of meaningful interaction with locals, such as meetings with business owners or artist visits, and to stay in a private home – known as a casa particular – instead of a hotel.
Nearly 150,000 passengers visited Cuba via cruise ship in the first four months of the year. With the ban on cruise ships already in effect, reports suggest tourist destinations such as Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion or the street-art masterpiece of Fusterlandia are now relatively tranquil, with no buses offloading hundreds of passengers at a time.
After the 2016 thaw in US-Cuba relations during the Obama administration, the Cuban government further loosened the restrictions on private enterprise and issued nearly 500,000 small business licenses, many focused on hospitality. This led to a new wave of private restaurants – called paladares – around the capital changing Cuba’s reputation for bad food. Just try out Cuban tapas joint, Jibaro, or the hip breakfast spot, El Cafe for a taste of new Havana.
Cuba’s economic situation is precarious. They already struggle with food and fuel shortages, and there are predictions of further economic hardship ahead. Every cab journey, every meal in a paladar, or night in a casa particular supports Cuban families whose livelihood depends on it. Your spending on the island boosts Cuban entrepreneurship and financial independence.
While it is possible to travel to the island independently, many tour operators have been navigating the complicated regulations for decades and can build an itinerary based on your interests. “We know the law and the legality and make sure everyone travels with full compliance,” said Ronen Paldi, President of Ya’lla Tours, Ensemble’s on-location Cuba specialists. “We have been operating in Cuba for 17 years and are experts, not just in the American legality, but also in the Cuban way of life.”