Published on : Wednesday, June 5, 2019
The Trump administration on Tuesday ended the most popular modes of U.S. travel to Cuba, banning cruise ships and a heavily used category of educational travel in an attempt to cut off cash to the island’s communist government. For travellers confused about the thicket of federal regulations governing travel to Cuba, cruises offered a simple, one-stop, guaranteed-legal way to travel.
Cruise travel from the U.S. to Cuba began in May 2016 during President Barack Obama’s opening with the island. It has become the most popular form of U.S. leisure travel to the island, bringing 142,721 people in the first four months of the year, a more than 300 per cent increase over the same period last year.
That now appears to be over, with an estimated 800,000 cruise passenger bookings affected, according to Cruise Lines International Association.
“Cruise ships as well as recreational and pleasure vessels are prohibited from departing the U.S. on temporary sojourn to Cuba effective (Wednesday),” the Commerce Department said in a statement.
The new restrictions are part of a broader effort by the administration of President Donald Trump to roll back the Obama-era efforts to restore normal relations between the United States and Cuba, which drew sharp criticism from the more hard-line elements of the Cuban American community and their allies in Congress.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who declared Cuba part of a “troika of tyranny” along with Nicaragua and Venezuela as he outlined plans for sanctions in November, said the new policy is intended to deny the Cuban government a vital source of revenue.
The Cuban government imposed food rationing last month as a result of tightened U.S. sanctions and a drop in subsidised oil and other aid from Venezuela. For the Cuban government, cruise travel generated many millions of dollars a year in docking fees and payments for on-shore excursions, although those figures were never made public. Cuba also has become the most-requested destination for many South Florida-based cruise lines.
The new restrictions take effect Wednesday, but the government said it will allow anyone who has already paid for a trip to go ahead with it. But the process going forward for passengers isn’t clear.
Carnival Corporation spokesman Roger Frizzell said Wednesday there would be no grandfathering allowed for cruise ships.
“Due to changes in U.S. policy, the company will no longer be permitted to sail to Cuba effective immediately,” he said, adding that Carnival and its sister lines, Holland America and Seabourn, would provide additional details to passengers who have already booked cruises affected by the ban.
However, cruise lines carrying passengers booked before Tuesday had been hoping that they could request specific federal permits to complete their trips to Cuba, said Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based attorney who represents Carnival and three other major cruise lines.
“For now, it’s prohibited unless the cruise line requests a specific license,” Freyre said. He said cruise lines had been trying to determine “if there’s any opening there to at least complete trips that have been booked and passengers that have made travel plans.”
Carnival is not the only line impacted by the new restrictions. News agencies have reached out to cruise lines that visit Cuba for comment, and many of them are still trying to figure out the implications.
Without warning, CLIA cruise line members are forced to eliminate all Cuba destinations from all itineraries effective immediately. This affects nearly 800,000 passenger bookings that are scheduled or already underway. All these bookings had been made under a general license previously issued by the United States Government that authorised “people to people” travel to Cuba.
“This affects all of us,” said William Mártinez, 58, a Cuban-born American who lived in Florida for 46 years but returned five years ago to drive a classic car for tourists. “It’s inhuman, the sanctions that they’re putting on Cuba.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the measures are a response to what he calls Cuba’s “destabilising role” in the Western Hemisphere, including support for the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
“This administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime,” Mnuchin said. “These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence and security services.”
Along with the cruise ships, the U.S. will also now ban most private planes and boats from stopping in the island.
Cruises have become more popular than flights for leisure travellers to Cuba — nearly 30,000 more came by cruise ship than flights this year. The figures exclude Cuban-born Americans visiting family on the island.