Even before the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to Cuba last week due to a series of alleged sonic attacks committed on U.S. embassy employees, many travel experts were already reporting a decline in interest in travel to Cuba.
President Donald Trump’s announcement back in late May that he planned to undo former President Barack Obama’s decision to ease to travel restrictions to Cuba, along with back-to-back hurricanes in the form of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, have hurt interest in travel to the once-forbidden Caribbean island.
“The President's threats to undo Obama's eased travel restrictions, perceived hurricane damage, and the most recent diplomatic issues are all threatening to limit U.S. consumer interest in visiting,” says Caribbean specialist Mitch Toren of Trip Guy. “Too much uncertainty. That said, some resorts like Royalton Hicacos have done a great job of promoting that that they are already back to business after the hurricanes.”
Last week, the State Department has issued a new travel warning for the destination, citing attacks on employees at the U.S. embassy in Havana. Officials are also ordering all nonessential embassy staff members out of the country.
“Over the past several months, numerous U.S. Embassy Havana employees have been targeted in specific attacks,” the State Department wrote in a statement on its website. “These employees have suffered significant injuries as a consequence of these attacks. Affected individuals have exhibited a range of physical symptoms including ear complaints and hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.”
The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) is informing of all of its members of the latest warning, while also noting that there are currently zero reports of tourists being harmed.
“We are telling agents that yes, there is a State Department warning, but there other material facts like private citizens have not been affected and it reportedly took place in one hotel, so that should alleviate cruise fears,” says Eben Peck, senior vice president of government and public affairs for ASTA. “And we haven’t heard any issue from any of our tourism partners in Cuba.”
On September 29, the Department ordered the departure of nonemergency U.S. government employees and their family members to protect their safety. Due to the drawdown in staff, the State Department warns that the embassy will have limited ability to assist U.S. citizens, providing emergency assistance only.
Although ASTA did not have any official statistics to provide, Peck says he expects the latest warning, along with Trump's announcement and the recent hurricanes, to cause a dip in Cuba arrivals from the U.S.
“I haven’t seen any hard numbers, but those three things you mentioned all present some headwinds for demand for Cuba travel,” Peck told Travel Agent. “Right after Obama made his announcement, interest in Cuba was really booming. It will take a few months [to see the official statistics], but i won’t be shocked to see that the numbers have dipped a bit since then.”
ASTA may have to wait for the final statistics to determine whether interest in Cuba has waned, but Emily Bertsch of VIP Vacations, Inc. has seen the decline firsthand.
“When the travel restrictions on Cuba were raised, we had quite a few inquiries about travel to Cuba,” Bertsch told Travel Agent. “Unfortunately, none of them ended up booking and didn’t share with me why, which I was extremely curious about. However, ever since Trump stated that he was going to repeal the modifications that would allow certain types of visitors to enter Cuba, the destination has pretty much flown off the map and we haven’t had any recent inquiries since.”
But that could also be attributed to the fact that Cuba is not the traditional Caribbean destination that most frequent travelers have grown accustomed to, Peck says. In fact, restrictions currently in place still mean that clients don’t have full control over their itinerary and have to instead follow a People-to-People program.
“Cuba has always been a challenging sell because you have to be committed to doing the type of travel that is legally allowed,” says Peck.
Matthew Alicz of Legacy Travel also says clients shouldn’t expect the same infrastructure they are accustomed to in other more tourism-ready islands in the Caribbean.
“It’s not like traveling to Mexico where you expect to step off the plane and be pampered by award-winning resorts within an hour of arriving,” Alicz told Travel Agent. “It is more of a time capsule you travel to. The island is relatively unchanged since the 1960’s. Of course travelers will have some guides and local contacts, but the infrastructure for American tourism just isn’t there yet and likely won’t be for several more years. We have to make that very clear to our clients interested in traveling to such a destination.”
Several tours operators, such as Access Trips, immediately came out with statements announcing they would still be offering scheduled People-to-People tours, despite the recent travel warning.
“The health and safety of our guests is our highest priority. Given that the issues raised by the State Department have not affected any U.S. travelers going to Cuba, we believe it remains a safe destination and will continue to offer tours there until that assessment changes,” said Tamar Lowell, CEO of Access Trips, in a written release.
Norwegian Cruise Line has announced it will continue to operate its cruises to Havana, Cuba, as scheduled.
“There have been no reported incidents involving tourists or other cruise ship passengers,” Norwegian wrote in a statement on its website. “Reported incidents have been isolated to diplomats and government officials residing on the island.”
Norwegian also said that it has thoroughly evaluated its shore excursion and tour locations, none of which are owned or operated by the military. The visa issuing process for Norwegian guests will remain the same.
“We continue to believe that the best way to travel to Cuba is via cruise ship and look forward to continuing to offer our guests the opportunity to explore Cuba’s beauty, culture and friendly people,” the cruise line said.