Cruising to Cuba? No, you’re not.

Effective today, June 5, cruise ships are no longer allowed to travel from U.S. ports to Cuba. The ban, part of a new series of travel-related sanctions, was announced Tuesday.

According to the rule published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, cruise ships, recreational and pleasure boats are prohibited from departing from the U.S. for Cuba. According to the Miami Herald, an administration official said the restrictions were implemented in response to the Cuban government’s continued support for Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.

The intent is obviously to reduce the amount of money flowing to the Cuban government. As cruise companies do most everywhere, they pay fees to dock in Cuba, where most of the ports are controlled by the Cuban military.

The flag of Cuba

The reduction in the number of American visitors will also reduce the country’s revenue from the exchange rate charged for exchanging U.S. currency. The Cuban government levies a 10 percent surcharge for changing dollars plus a three percent financial transaction charge for a total of 13 percent.

Americans can still travel to Cuba, but they must fall into one or more of 12 categories authorized by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control.

The 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba are:
  • Family visits
  • Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
  • Journalistic activity
  • Professional research and professional meetings
  • Educational activities
  • Religious activities
  • Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  • Support for the Cuban people
  • Humanitarian projects
  • Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  • Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials; and
  • Certain authorized export transactions
For more information, visit the website of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

In 2015, the Obama administration began allowing cruise lines to get people-to-people licenses to travel to Cuba. Cruise lines interested in serving Cuba also had to obtain the approval of the Cuban government and as a result, the first cruises didn’t take place until early 2016.

Because the travel ban goes into effect immediately, cruise passengers should expect their itineraries to be altered, just as they would be in case of inclement weather, like the hurricanes that struck the Caribbean in 2017. In such cases, cruise companies have alternate ports of call they can substitute for the Cuban ports that were on their itineraries.

Unfortunately, passengers who don’t like their new itineraries may not have much recourse. The cruise contract that covered our recent Baltic cruise on Holland America was quite specific:

“Carrier may, for any reason, without prior notice … call or omit to call at any port or place … without liability to Carrier.”

My take

Without getting into the politics of the decision, I have to wonder whether it is more symbolic than practical.

There was a great flurry of activity when the Obama administration relaxed the rules for traveling to Cuba. Cruise lines and airlines jockeyed for position and were eager to publicize their early trips to the formerly forbidden island.

jetBlue inaugural flight to Santa Clara
Photo provided by jetBlue

However, a mere five months after flights resumed from the U.S. to Cuba after a hiatus of more than a half century, several airlines scaled back the number of flights because demand, particularly from the U.S. East Coast, turned out to be dramatically lower than anticipated.

There were and still are challenges with Cuba’s tourism infrastructure. Though U.S. citizens are permitted to use their credit and debit cards – which had been previously prohibited – relatively few Cuban businesses are set up to accept them. Industrious individuals have listed their homes on sites like AirBNB but many admit their command of English is poor, which can discourage many less-adventurous travelers.

Finally, tourist travel to Cuba was never fully opened up; U.S. citizens must still fall into one of the categories mentioned earlier or risk incurring the wrath of the federal government. Though some sources say no American has ever been prosecuted for simply visiting Cuba as a tourist, many people are uncomfortable with pushing the envelope.

As they say, “Time will tell” whether the administration's latest move is effective.

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