--In advance of President Obama’s historic trip to Havana this week, his administration made perhaps the most significant changes so far to the regulations surrounding Cuba tourism by allowing Americans to visit the island without being a member of a tour group.
On its face, the rules about what U.S. visitors can do in Cuba don’t change: Individuals are only allowed to travel to Cuba for one of 12 reasons, including “people-to-people educational” trips. But on people-to-people trips, they no longer have to travel with a licensed group.
Americans Can Self-Certify Via Affidavit
Regular tourism to Cuba is still technically illegal, but the rules are essentially unenforceable. Americans will be able to travel on their own in Cuba by self-certifying via an affidavit that they are conforming to the regulations, which the Department of the Treasury defined as “a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities and that will result in a meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba."
The island is sorely lacking in the infrastructure necessary to accommodate a mass influx of individual travelers. Cuba is facing tremendous challenges. In the last 15 to 16 months, the administration is doing all this easing of the restrictions. But what has not changed is the infrastructure in Cuba.
Hotels are full, completely sold out until May 2018. Prices are going up, space is becoming more and more limited.
The problem is travel there has increased 70% since last year, and there are not enough hotels, and each time I go the restaurants are packed. It’s just so busy. They have a long way to go.
Diane Mullahy“I have clients go down, and I tell them anything can happen. You have to be flexible.”
It Is Illegal for Credit-Card Companies to Operate in Cuba
Another major impediment to the ease of traveling individually is that even though the Obama administration last year made it legal for credit-card companies to operate in Cuba, U.S.-issued credit cards are still not usable on the island, and U.S. banks have not enabled ATM withdrawals there, meaning everyone has to go with cash only.
Few Merchants Accept US Credit Cards
“The problem is that, so far, relatively few U.S. banks have been willing to go through the process of making arrangements with the Cuban government and with Cuban merchants to actually accept U.S. credit cards,” said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University. “The profit margin is small, and they are afraid of large fines from the Department of the Treasury if they inadvertently violate the embargo.”
And while the Obama administration said the change was intended to make educational travel to Cuba more accessible and less expensive for Americans, so far the opposite is true.
“We’ve seen costs increase by 40% and 20%, respectively, over the past year,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba. “If demand increases, it’s more likely we will see prices increase even more.”
By Johanna Jainchill / March 20, 2016