Cruises to Cuba Are Banned, But the Ships Sail On

June 6, 2019, 7:18 PM UTC

In May 2016, following the Obama administration’s decision to ease travel restrictions on Cuba, a Carnival vessel became the first U.S. cruise ship to port in Havana in more than 50 years.

This week, the brief but explosive industry of U.S. cruises to Cuba came to an abrupt end. The Trump administration announced Tuesday that passenger and recreational vessels and private and corporate aircraft would now be ineligible for a license exception to travel to Cuba.

In other words: no cruise ships.

President Donald Trump first introduced these restrictions in April, intending to strength U.S. policy against Cuba and pull the economic flow of tourism away from the Cuban government.

“Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in department press release announcing the changes.

Travel to Cuba for purely tourist activities has long been prohibited, but exceptions for a handful of categories—including family visits, professional research, religious activities, and more—have existed as “general licenses” since 2000.

Until Tuesday, one such license was group People to People education travel. This program, one of the most popular by which Americans could visit Cuba, required travelers to visit Cuba through a company or cruise line and keep a full schedule of educational and cultural activities meant to strengthen the relationship between Americans and Cubans.

With People to People travel eliminated, many agencies are turning to the Support for the Cuban People category, which requires a full-time schedule of activities related to local businesses and culture. Travelers must avoid spending money at military-owned businesses and instead participate in activities that “promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

While some travel agencies will be able to continue operation under this program, cruise ships—the most popular form of U.S. travel to Cuba, according to The New York Times—were entirely blocked under Tuesday’s regulatory changes.

The U.S. Department of State said previously allowing such travel has amounted to “veiled tourism,” which has “served to line the pockets of the Cuban military.” According to a 2018 industry review conducted by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, cruises made a global “economic impact” of $126 billion last year.

Most cruise lines are providing compensation to passengers whose travel itinerary will have to be changed last minute due to the new regulations.

Carnival, for example, is offering travelers a $100 on-board credit per person to stay on the same sailing, with a different port replacing Havana. Those who choose to switch to a different itinerary will receive a $50 on-board credit per person, and those who choose to cancel their plans will receive a full refund.

Royal Caribbean is offering a 50% refund to those who choose to remain on the sailing with a new itinerary or a full refund for those who choose to cancel.

Cruise lines are used to having to quickly change itineraries due to weather and natural disasters: both Carnival and Royal Caribbean had many replacement destinations in place within 24 hours of the Trump administration’s announcement, although 2020 bookings are still in the works.

Still, the Cruise Lines International Association says the policy affects an estimated 800,000 who travel to Cuba on cruise ships each year. A 2018 study by the organization reports 43% of travel agents said their customers are increasingly interested in Cuba, mostly because it’s seen as a “new, exotic and mysterious” destination.

“We are disappointed that cruises will no longer be operating to Cuba,” Adam Goldstein, Chairman of the CLIA, said in a statement. “While out of our control, we are genuinely sorry for all cruise line guests who were looking forward to their previously booked itineraries to Cuba.”

Despite the setback, the association said it expects “continued growth” in the nearly $46 billion industry, with roughly 30 million passengers this year (up from just under 26 million in 2017). Alaska is reportedly the largest growth market, with 64% of travel agents reporting increased bookings in 2018.

As the CLIA said in its report last year, “The cruise industry isn’t going anywhere—except maybe to the next port.”

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