The changes in recent years on visitation to Cuba have created opportunities as well as confusion for Californians. Can you even go to Cuba? If so, can you fly to Cuba? Can you take a cruise to Cuba? The answers — yes, yes and no — may surprise you. And if there’s one thing you don’t want to be, it’s surprised, because the consequences are significant. Here are the questions we hear most often, answered by two Cuba experts and information from the Office of Foreign Assets Control. What’s that? Read on.
Doesn’t the State Department prohibit visits to Cuba?
No. This is incorrect on two counts. First, the rules you’ll need to know for a Cuba visit fall under the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. You can take a more in-depth look at bit.ly/cubarules.
President Obama loosened restrictions on Cuba travel in 2015; President Trump tightened them again, mostly recently in June.
You can still visit. Traveling with a group probably will be easier because a tour company will know the regulations and steer you, away from danger. Danger? What you don’t want is to unwittingly do business with a company that the Treasury Department has deemed off-limits because of ties to the Cuban government.
“We are taking additional steps to financially isolate the Cuban regime,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a Sept. 6 statement. “Through these regulatory amendments, Treasury is denying Cuba access to hard currency, and we are curbing the Cuban government’s bad behavior while continuing to support the long-suffering people of Cuba.”
Thus certain hotels, for example, are off-limits because they are under the control of the military. To see the list, go to bit.ly/cubarestrictedentities.
But didn’t U.S. airlines stop flying there recently?
No. It’s true that American and JetBlue in December will drop flights to such places as Santa Clara in central Cuba and Holguín in eastern Cuba, but flights to Havana, which is most of the air traffic, continue.
“Quite honestly, [for] the majority of the tourism that we’re involved in, the gateway really is Havana,” said Janet Moore, founder of Distant Horizons in Long Beach, which sends many groups to Cuba.
A couple of her groups are supposed to be in Santa Clara this winter. “We will have to drive” as the result of the decision, which she labeled as strange. “It’s not the end of the world for us, but it’s another nail in the coffin” of travel to Cuba.
OK, so I can take a cruise to Cuba, right?
Wrong. In June, cruises to Cuba were banned suddenly, catching numerous cruise lines flat-footed. That amounted, Cruise Lines International Assn. said, to a loss of about 800,000 visitors and created havoc for those who had signed up just so they could get a sampler platter of Cuba. The sudden cessation left many berths unfilled.
That sudden stop also affects those who make a living or make ends meet by serving tourists. “Cubans have been suffering economically because their livelihood is tied to what American travel organizers can bring to them and their families,” said Manny Kopstein, co-founder of Cuba Travel Adventures Group in the Bay Area, which does philanthropic work in Cuba while providing customized travel. The loss of the cruise market is a “huge negative” for those who had invested to serve visitors and are suffering a corresponding drop in income.
Maybe I should go now before things change again?
December, January and February are good times to visit Cuba — after hurricane season. It’s dry and less humid. But you may have trouble finding a trip if you’re thinking of a group tour. After a slow summer (which is not high season), both Kopstein and Moore are finding demand is high for winter trips.
Do I have to go with a group?
You do not. But here’s what OFAC regulations say if you’re traveling in “support for the Cuban people,” a new category of travel that is acceptable: “Each person relying on a certain general authorization must retain specific records related to the authorized travel transactions. “ And Code of Federal Regulations 501.601 says that “such record shall be available for examination for at least five years after the date of such transaction.”
If you go as a foreign independent traveler, the documentation is your responsibility. Keeping your paperwork around for five years is also your responsibility. If you’re bad at one or the other, consider going with a group or reforming your ways.
If I do go, should I take euros instead of U.S. dollars? How about a credit card?
If you happen to have a big stack of euros sitting around, sure. The exchange rate for euros is better than that for U.S. dollars, which incur a 13% penalty when you exchange them in Cuba. But unless you are spending lavishly, you may not see that much benefit. You’ll pay a transaction fee to convert your dollars to euros and to convert them back again so I vote no. You are certainly allowed to take a credit card; you may not be able to use it. The country is still building its economic infrastructure. For now, cash is king.
What if I just want to lie on the beach and get winter out of my bones ?
If you’re an American, go somewhere else. (Canadians and Europeans have no such restrictions, so winter travel to Cuba is quite appealing to them.) In answer to the question about whether “travel to Cuba for tourist activities” is allowable, OFAC’s response is short and sweet: No. Lying on the beach falls under no category we could find. If what you’re doing doesn’t fall into one of the allowable categories permitted under the newest regulations, it means you’re out of compliance and, if questioned, you also may be out of luck.