A night view of Havana, which has drawn an increasing number of American travelers. CreditRobert Rausch for The New York Times
For Americans who want to visit Cuba, things got even murkier as the Trump administration last week said that it would further restrict nonfamily travel to the island.
The new restrictions are part of a tougher policy toward Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, said John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, who called the three countries “the troika of tyranny” in a speech to veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the failed 1961 attempt to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro.
“The Department of the Treasury will implement further regulatory changes to restrict nonfamily travel to Cuba,” he said. “These new measures will help steer Americans’ dollars away from the Cuban regime.”
The statement suggests that the government will increasingly restrict travel to the island, but it was vague enough to leave travelers wondering if their trips to Cuba would suddenly be canceled.
What have the rules for traveling to Cuba been?
For decades, the United States banned its citizens from traveling to Cuba for tourism because of the hostile relationship between the two countries. And for many years, Americans who wanted to go to Cuba anyway would first go to another country and fly from there.
From 1999 to 2003, the United States government granted so called “people-to-people” licenses that allowed Americans to travel to Cuba if the trip was, for example, for educational or religious reasons. When President George W. Bush’s administration imposed new travel restrictions, those licenses were no longer issued.
In 2011, in an effort to thaw relations with the island, the Obama administration once again granted people-to-people licenses, making it possible for Americans who were not journalists or scholars to visit Cuba legally, as long as they went with a licensed operator.
In March 2016, the rules were expanded, making it possible for Americans to travel on their own to Cuba, as long as they took part in educational exchange activities, including interacting with Cuban people.
Under that policy, those visiting Cuba had to fall into one of 12 approved categories.
What are the 12 approved categories?
The 12 categories are: family visits; support for the Cuban people; educational, religious or journalistic activities; humanitarian projects; professional research and professional meetings; activities of private foundations, research or educational institutes; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; official business of the United States government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations; exportation, importation or transmission of information or informational materials; and certain authorized export transactions.
Mr. Bolton said that at least some of the travel to Cuba was “veiled tourism,” and that the government would be cracking down on it.
How hard has it been to go?
The process for traveling to Cuba has been fairly simple in recent years, much like going on any other vacation. Americans can book direct flights from various cities on airlines, including JetBlue, American, Southwest and United. Travelers then apply for a tourist card, commonly called a visa even though it isn’t really one. Some airlines sell the card online, but many travelers bought the card at the airport before leaving the United States. The card is valid for 30 days and can be renewed in Cuba for another 30 days.
In 2017, the Trump administration reversed the people-to-people policy and said Americans could again only visit as part of an educational tour. The current administration also banned Americans from staying and shopping in government-owned hotels and shops. This has led to an increase of Airbnbs and guesthouses known as casas particulares, which are not directly government-run. The Cuban government controls most hotels, but there are some owned by Starwood and Marriott.
The Treasury Department says that people caught violating these rules can be fined $250,000 and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, but there is no evidence of anyone ever having to pay this fine or go to prison.
“It does feel like this proposed transition is coming at an interesting time in present day Cuba,” said Renee Radabaugh, president of Paragon Events, a company that organizes tours to Cuba. “When we started years ago, there was limited internet access, limited hotel accommodations — what you could do or could not do was tied to the 12 categories. It was more rustic and experiential, now it has a Caribbean vacation feel to it.”
Are air and cruise lines still going to Cuba?
American, Southwest, Delta and United Airlines are among the airlines that fly to Cuba regularly. All four said that they were not currently canceling upcoming trips, but would comply with regulations and policies set by the government.
American currently operates 10 daily flights to Cuba from Miami. Southwest has daily flights from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale to Havana, and it “operates those flights in accordance within governing laws and all applicable regulations,” a Southwest representative said. A representative for American said the airline will “continue to comply with federal law and work with the Administration to update our policies and procedures regarding travel to Cuba as necessary.”
The cruise lines Royal Caribbean and Norwegian told The Times that they are monitoring the new regulations, but for the moment will continue to travel to Cuba.
Ms. Radabaugh’s company, Paragon Events, and another tour company Insight Cuba, said it has not canceled any upcoming tours.