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Are Cuba Travel Restrictions Tightening?

National Security Advisor Bolton recently announced that the current administration will tighten rules on travel to Cuba to close tourism loopholes, limiting Cuba travel to mainly family visits. But that’s all that Bolton said. The Department of the Treasury is responsible for issuing specific sanctions, so many expected the Treasury to officially announce new rules the following week. But so far, it hasn’t announced anything at all. The result for now is uncertainty—despite some reports that the specific details are indeed coming.

As far as anyone can tell, the official travel rules for visiting Cuba remain as they were before Bolton’s vague April 17 announcement: A broad “general license” is required for Cuba travel by U.S. citizens, with a few limitations.

Cuba travel rules were relaxed substantially under the Obama administration, which encouraged the travel industry to jump in—and it did. A slew of airlines started flying to Cuba after the change, though many have cancelled initial routes because of weak demand (not because of any government restrictions). Similarly, under the liberalized rules, cruise lines started scheduling stops at Cuban ports and U.S. hotel operators started looking at establishing a presence in the main Cuban centers; both businesses would presumably be hurt by new restrictions. The Trump administration has talked up Cuba travel restrictions, but the technical travel process remains largely unchanged—for now.

“Cruising to Cuba falls under the ‘lawful travel exemption’ under Title III of the Helms Burton Act,” the Cruising Lines International Association (CLIA) said the possibility of restrictions tightening on Cuba cruises. “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. They have also provided much-needed entrepreneurial opportunities that provide important economic benefit directly to the Cuban people.”

So the announcement of forthcoming Cuba travel restrictions, followed by inaction, leaves both the travel industry and travelers hanging. Nobody in the business knows how to address planning for service, hiring staff, and doing all the things travel suppliers have to do.

Individual travelers don’t know whether to cancel Cuba trips they’ve already planned or stop planning Cuba trips. There is a general consensus in the travel blogosphere that whatever new rules Treasury announces will “grandfather” any existing arrangements and commitments. But that’s just speculation, not fact.

Presumably, the Treasury will issue clarifying rules “soon,” but indications are that “soon” will be a matter of weeks, not days. After that, limits will probably go back to the previous pre-liberalized version, but that’s not certain, either: Rules could remain a bit looser or get even tighter than they were.

For now, if you’re thinking about visiting Cuba, keep your ear to the ground—or start working on a plan B.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

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