A group of 28 United States tour operators and organizations specializing in educational travel and exchanges with Cuba is calling on the U.S. State Department to re-staff its Embassy in Havana and change Cuba’s travel advisory from a Level 3 (“reconsider travel”) to at least a less intimidating Level 2 (“exercise increased caution”).
The request comes on the eve of the State Department’s decision about whether or not to return the U.S. diplomats to the Embassy, expected to be announced on March 4.
Beginning in late September 2017, after reports that 24 U.S. Embassy employees in Havana had suffered unexplained health ailments, the Trump Administration withdrew 60 percent of its Embassy staff from Havana, issued a Travel Warning urging Americans not travel to Cuba, and expelled 15 diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington, D.C.
At the time, CNN reported “a string of mysterious attacks against U.S. diplomats.” According to that report, several U.S. officials told CNN that U.S. diplomats and family members became ill after apparent sonic attacks. At least 21 staff members and two Canadians reported health problems ranging from mild brain trauma and deafness to dizziness and nausea, according to a BBC report at the time. Cuba denied involvement in any sonic attack, according to the BBC.
According to the New York Times, “despite an intensive investigation by the F.B.I., the cause and perpetrators of the attacks remain a mystery, with some experts speculating that some kind of sonic weapon or faulty surveillance device may have been at fault.”
However, a survey of 42 tour operators and educational travel organizations conducted in late January 2018 by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) found that not one of their travelers reported suffering from health issues similar to those of the Embassy employees, according to a CREST news release.
Collectively, those surveyed sent more than 42,000 U.S. travelers to Cuba in 2016 and 2017. In addition, there have been no confirmed cases of similar illness among the estimated 700,000 private U.S. citizens who visited the island nation in 2017, according to CREST.
In January, the State Department issued a new global travel advisory system, which ranks Cuba as Level 3. According to the State Department, this level means to "avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security."
“A Level 3 rating is not justified for Cuba since there are no confirmed causes of private citizens or travelers contracting symptoms similar to the diplomats,” said Andrea Holbrook, president and CEO of Holbrook Travel, one of the companies that signed the petition, in a written release. “This inappropriate travel warning has caused fear and confusion and has sharply reduced the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba,” Holbrook adds. “It has also affected travel businesses in the States and in Cuba, including those small businesses, like B&Bs and home restaurants, which depend so heavily on American tourists.”
However, the Associated Press (AP) is reporting that travel to Cuba is booming from dozens of countries, including the U.S. The government figures show that 2017 was a record year for tourism, with 4.7 million visitors pumping more than $3 billion into the island's otherwise struggling economy, according to the AP.
During a meeting on January 12 with State Department officials, a group of American tour operators, travel associations, and Cuba experts were told that a Level 3 rating is automatically triggered by a “drawdown” of U.S. Embassy personnel as a result of the “No Double Standard” policy articulated in the Foreign Affairs Manual.
According to the State Department, this policy originated after the terrorist bombing of a passenger airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, in the interest of sharing information publicly about potential threats against U.S. citizens. That policy, however, also states it is “not intended to prevent the limited distribution of information about threats to specific U.S. citizens/nationals or U.S. organizations.”
“The ‘No Double Standard’ policy leaves the option for the State Department to report threats only to those parties that might be affected by similar incidents,” said Kate Simpson, president of Academic Travel Abroad, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based educational travel company, in the CREST release. “So why was this more limited approach not employed in the case of Cuba, given that the affected group consists only of diplomats, many of whom are known to be intelligence officers and their families?”
On March 4, the State Department faces a mandatory deadline requiring that, six months after an Embassy drawdown, staff must either be reassigned or sent back to their original post.
The drawdown in Havana began in early September 2017 as Hurricane Irma hit the island and was increased to 60 percent of staff later in the month, in the wake of media revelations about afflictions to the two dozen U.S. diplomats and a handful of staff in the Canadian Embassy. Canada has launched an investigation but has not downsized its Embassy or issued any travel warning to its citizens.
According to CREST, the 28 tour operators and organizations specializing in educational travel to Cuba are calling for the State Department to return more consular officers to the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. foreign-service officers, and some diplomats who were interviewed for the ProPublica article, indicated that this is also their wish — to return U.S. diplomats to Cuba. This would, the group hopes, eliminate the trigger that has categorized the country as a Level 3.
The U.S. State Department's New Four-Tier System
Level 1 - Exercise Normal Precautions: This is the lowest advisory level for safety and security risk. There is some risk in any international travel. Conditions in other countries may differ from those in the U.S. and may change at any time.
Level 2 - Exercise Increased Caution: Be aware of heightened risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
Level 3 - Reconsider Travel: Avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
Level 4 - Do Not Travel: This is the highest advisory level due to greater likelihood of life-threatening risks. During an emergency, the U.S. government may have very limited ability to provide assistance. The Department of State advises that U.S. citizens not travel to the country or leave as soon as it is safe to do so. The Department of State provides additional advice for travelers in these areas in the Travel Advisory. Conditions in any country may change at any time.
CTS to be First U.S. Travel Company to Open Office in Cuba
Cuba Travel Services (CTS), a charter and tour operator serving the Cuba, has announced it will be opening a Havana location on March 31.
It is considered a significant event as this is the first time a U.S. based travel company is awarded permission to operate in Cuba in more than 60 years.
Services provided by the California-based company in Havana will include flight ticket sales; customer support; hotel reservations; tour operation support; car rentals; excursions and cruise support services.
Opening a new office in Havana will allow Cuba Travel Services to monitor its operations more closely and better assist their clients while in the country. Additionally, CTS will be better positioned to ensure their cruise and tour operator clients continue to offer Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) compliant programs.
Cuba Travel Services will open its first office in the historic Lonja Del Comercio building located in Plaza de San Francisco just across from the Sierra Maestra cruise terminal and has plans to open additional locations in Havana, Camaguey, Cienfuegos, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba.
"Having the Ministry of Tourism grant this request to have a location in Cuba has been a big win for our organization. Our physical presence means our licensed clients will get faster service and more personalized attention directly from our staff," said Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel Services, in a written release. "This is a very exciting time for us, to be the first U.S.-based travel company to open its doors in Havana. We are confident our existing market expertise and knowledge combined with local representation, will result in an improved customer experience."
Visit www.responsibletravel.org and www.cubatravelservices.com. Keep visiting www.travelagentcentral.com for all your latest travel news and be sure to follow Travel Agent’s Joe Pike on Twitter @TravelPike and Instagram @pike5260.