Update: The Trump Administration has banned cruise sailings to Cuba since this story was first published. You can read the latest here.
Cruises to Cuba continue to sail from the U.S. even as news stories warn of forthcoming Trump Administration travel restrictions to the island nation. Why the seeming contradiction between the headlines and the fact that cruise lines (and other carriers) continue to sell Cuban voyages?
If you find the Cuba travel situation confusing, you’re not alone. Here’s the scoop on what’s happened, what could change, and if your cruise to the island will be impacted.
Why Is Cuba Travel in the News Again? What Changed?
On April 17, 2019, National Security Advisor John Bolton, spoke in Coral Gables, Florida at a luncheon commemorating the 58th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs. During the speech, Bolton criticized “disastrous Obama-era policies” regarding Cuba, indicating a sharp change in attitude of the U.S. government toward the nation. He also stated that the U.S. Treasury Department “will implement further regulatory changes to restrict nonfamily travel to Cuba.”
Bolton stated that the current administration plans to crack down on the exemption for travel fostering people-to-people engagement (one of the approved categories for travel to Cuba), calling it “veiled tourism.”
Of course this leaves many to question whether cruises to the island will continue in their current form. The people-to-people engagement allowance is how cruise passengers with no ties to Cuba are able to visit legally.
However (as of this writing), the Department of Treasury has not made any announcement regarding specific sanctions. That leaves the travel industry and many individual travelers hoping to visit Cuba waiting to see what might change.
Another Issue: Carnival Being Sued for its Cuban Cruises
If the comments from the Trump Administration about Cuban travel raised some eyebrows, then so did the news that Carnival Cruise Lines was being sued over its travel to the island nation.
On the same day as Bolton’s announcement, the State Department announced it would begin enforcing Title III of the Helms-Burton Act (also known as the Libertad Act). This 1996 piece of legislation, signed by President Clinton, allows for legal action against companies using assets seized by the Cuban government. Title III of this law permits U.S. courts to hold companies doing business in or with Cuba liable for damages to U.S. citizens harmed by the Castro regime. However, Title III was waived by Clinton and every president who succeeded him – until now.
Recently two lawsuits have been filed by families who say they were the original owners of the Havana Docks Corp, which were confiscated and nationalized under Castro. Several cruise lines now use these docks when visiting Havana. Carnival, as the first cruise line to use the docks, is the target of the lawsuits.
Other cruise lines might be named in future lawsuits, but financial analysts predict the cruise industry won’t suffer long-term consequences from these suits. “The cases will likely be tied up in the federal court system for some time and subject to future changes in executive branch foreign policy,” said analyst Tim Conder of Wells Fargo Securities.
Will You Still Be Able to Cruise to Cuba?
President Trump’s June 2017 announcement of forthcoming limits to Cuba travel resulted in minor changes, which were not disclosed until November of that year. Many travelers are betting on this April’s rumblings about changes resulting in similarly delayed and minor restrictions.
Still, there is the possibility that bigger changes could occur.
One travel agent told Travel Market Report, “We’re just starting to book 2020 and nothing has been canceled. I have a meeting with a travel club on Friday night and I’m sure the first question will be, ‘What if they close Cuba?’ And my answer will be, ‘Then we won’t go and you’ll get your money back.’” On the other hand, a different agent quoted in the same article, said she feels “somewhat in limbo now waiting for clarification from the cruise lines and the government.”
The cruise industry’s stance is that cruises to Cuba are legal, even with the shift in Washington’s stance toward the island nation.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) released a statement in April noting that, “Cruising to Cuba falls under the ‘lawful travel exemption’ under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. Our member cruise lines have been and are now engaged in lawful travel to Cuba as expressly authorized by the United States federal government . . . Cruises to Cuba have delivered important social and cultural exchange between the people of the United States and the people of Cuba.”
And as Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Chairman Richard Fain told investors, “At this point, we don’t know if there will be changes, what those changes will be or to what extent they would impact us.”
Some travel industry experts believe whatever changes the Trump Administration makes will not affect tourism. Joe Pcolinsky, manager of partner relations for Frosch Travel, told Travel Weekly, “In my opinion, any regulatory changes are not meant to completely stop tourism to Cuba. They would be implemented to make it more difficult for the Cuban government to directly benefit from tourism to Cuba.”
How Should You Plan Given the Situation?
With an uncertain future, should you hold off on booking a cruise to Cuba or cancel a trip if you already have it booked?
We think the first step for any passenger who is booked on an upcoming Cuban cruise is to purchase travel insurance, just in case. The good news is that should your cruise be cancelled, you won’t be left out to dry by the cruise line. They won’t simply keep your money. Still, having some insurance can give you peace of mind.
Beyond that, we agree with Smarter Travel,which advised travelers last month, “If you’re thinking about visiting Cuba, keep your ear to the ground — or start working on a plan B.” Ask the cruise line or your travel agent, what plans are in place if U.S. citizens can no longer visit Cuba. Will the cruise be canceled? Or re-routed to other Caribbean ports? We think it most likely that other ports of call would be substituted.
More than anything if you are booking a Cuba cruise, just know that your trip could change due to matters outside the control of the cruise line.