Cruise Tourism and Trump Politics

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The policies announced by U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2017 to restrict travel of North Americans to Cuba, and the corresponding regulations that followed this November, harmed many U.S. nationals, both travelers and businesses… but not all. Cruise ships and airlines are unaffected by the new restrictions allowing them to continue normal activity, though the journey may be tougher for some.

In particular, one of the sub-categories - individual “people to people” travel – was eliminated. This was one of the most important categories of general license travel allowing individuals to make their own arrangements on self-directed programs in Cuba.

The new regulations issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) last November 9, (31 CFR Part 515) authorize travel to Cuba by “persons under U.S. jurisdiction” for the purpose of “People-to-People Exchanges” only in groups under the auspices of an organization subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges, and accompanied by “a U.S. person – who is an employee, paid consultant, agent, or other representative of the sponsoring organization”. (Section 515.565(b)).

Once again the government violates U.S. citizens’ constitutional right to travel anywhere in the world, a right that Obama had in part restored, and hurts some of the U.S. businesses that profited from that opening.

Since January 2016, Alaska Airlines had been flying daily between Los Angeles and Havana. The latest measures triggered the cancellation of these flights after January 2018, since 80 percent of their passengers were individual travelers. Nevertheless, other U.S. airlines such as American, Delta, FedEx, JetBlue, Southwest, and United applied last August for additional flights to the island. This seems to indicate that the bulk of their passengers fall within the unaffected categories: those visiting close relatives, on Official Government Business, on journalistic activities, those conducting professional research or attending professional meetings, those participating in educational activities and people-to-people exchanges, U.S. religious organizations, those attending public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions, and “U.S. persons who are supporting the Cuban people”, through “recognized human rights organizations” for the purpose of promoting “independent activity to strengthen civil society in Cuba”.[1]

None of these general travel licenses allow U.S. persons to carry out direct financial transactions with 179 Restricted Entities and Sub-entities Associated with Cuba (“Cuba Restricted List”)[2], which the State Department considers are “under the control of, or acting for or on behalf of, the Cuban military, intelligence, or security services”. (§515.209) These entities include, besides the Ministries of the Armed Forces and the Interior, the entities, Corporación CIMEX S.A., Compañía Turística Habaguanex S.A., GAESA — Grupo de Administración Empresarial S.A., Grupo de Turismo Gaviota and Unión de Industria Militar; 84 hotels owned by these entities throughout the island, two travel agencies, 5 marinas, 10 stores in Old Havana plus the Manzana de Gómez shopping mall, and a series of entities “directly serving the defense and security sectors”, including TRASVAL Hardware Store; Photoservice; Tropicola, Cachito, Najita and Jupiña soft drinks; Caney y Varadero rums, and the entire Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM).

Nevertheless, it is extremely noteworthy that neither the U.S. cruise lines nor their Cuba itineraries were affected by these measures, aimed at reversing Cuba-U.S. relations.

Until 2015, the U.S. government barred any vessel stopping in Cuba from docking in U.S. ports for six months. Thus, only a handful of European cruise lines included Cuba in their Caribbean itineraries. Few seem to remember that in 2006, the U.S. cruise lines Carnival and Royal Caribbean acquired all the European cruise ship companies that were using Cuba as their home port, leading to the immediate suspension of Cuba from their circuits. This caused a steep, eight-fold drop in passenger arrival numbers to Cuba.

For almost a decade Cuba barely participated in the booming Caribbean cruise tourism. When in 2015 the Obama Administration lifted that restriction, the arrival of cruise ship passengers to Cuba took off, after these same U.S. cruise lines and others included Cuba in their itineraries.

Carnival Cruises was the first in, with the arrival of the Adonia in Havana in May 2016, followed in 2017 by Carnival Paradise, with 2,052 passengers, the largest U.S. vessel that has sailed to Cuba to date. Other U.S. cruise lines that entered the Cuban market in 2016-2017 included Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Pearl Seas Cruise, which stop at various destinations in Cuba including Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Furthermore, since mid-2016, half a dozen or more U.S. lines have initiated trips to Cuba, including small cruise operators such as Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Oceania, Lindblad and Azamara Club Cruises.[3]

While only 29,000 cruise passengers arrived in 2015, the figure grew to 130,000 in 2016 and 477,000 between January and October of this year, the majority from the U.S. This represents 12 percent of the total 3.9 million international visitors that arrived in the country in the first ten months of this year.[4]

After Trump’s speech in Miami last June 16, the three largest U.S. cruise lines, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian, expressed satisfaction that Trump's policies will allow them to continue sailing to Cuba. Among cruise companies, Carnival expanded its Cuba itineraries on several of lines and Royal Caribbean announced it was opening bookings for 58 cruises to Cuba between January 2018 and March 2019. Norwegian announced that it would work with the Trump administration to comply with any changes to regulations that are implemented.[5]


[1] OFAC Regulations 31 CFR Part 515, November 9, 2017

[2] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, November 8, 2017

[3] M. Honey, J. Wilkins, J.L. Perelló y R. Betancourt, Lecciones para Cuba del turismo de cruceros, libro en proceso de edición para Ediciones Temas.

[4] “Exitoso desempeño del turismo de cruceros en Cuba”. Especial para Excelencias News Cuba, 17 noviembre 2017

[5] Gene Sloan , USA TODAY Published June 16, 2017


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