Cuba travel restrictions: What you need to know

Patrick Oppmann, CNNUpdated 7th June 2019
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Havana (CNN) — Travel to Cuba got more difficult -- and more confusing -- this week for Americans and travelers under US jurisdiction.
The announcement by the Trump administration Tuesday banning cruise ship operations from the United States to Cuba and eliminating "people-to-people" educational travel for Americans jolted the travel industry and put a wrench in many US travelers' Cuba plans.
Here's what we know about the decision's most significant travel impacts:

What's happened with cruises to Cuba?

All US cruise ship travel to Cuba has been banned by the Trump administration. US cruise companies were given the green light to start sailing to Cuba in May 2016 by the Obama administration and heavy hitters like Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean quickly set up routes that became incredibly popular.
If there was a problem, it was that Cuba's outdated ports didn't have enough room for all the US ships. In May, Cuba said more than 140,000 US citizens had already visited the island in 2019 aboard cruises.
Then on Tuesday the Trump administration told US cruise lines they had a little more than one day to reroute or get their ships out of Cuba.
Chaos ensued as trips were cut short or rerouted, skipping a port that was a key factor in many passengers' booking choice. Many cruise companies are offering customers money back or free cancellation of their cruises if they haven't traveled yet.
Nearly 800,000 bookings were affected, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

What else is changing?

As the Trump administration first said it would do in April, the US is also eliminating the so-called people-to-people or educational activities category of travel
The Obama administration allowed 12 categories of legal travel. People-to-people trips, which emphasized creating direct contact with the Cuban people through cultural activities, were the most popular.
Many critics of the people-to-people policy felt that this was essentially tourism, which remains illegal.
The good news is that if you booked at least part of your trip before June 5, 2019, you can still go ahead and travel to Cuba. If you hadn't made a booking, you are out of luck.

How can I still go to Cuba?

The flood of American visitors to Cuba will slow down significantly.
The flood of American visitors to Cuba will slow down significantly.
Eleven categories of legal travel to Cuba remain. They include family visits for Cuban-Americans, professional research, journalism, religious activities and athletic competitions.
Some frequent Cuba travelers feel the support for the Cuban people category is broad enough to allow most US citizens to travel to the island provided they stay in Airbnbs and eat at paladars, restaurants that are run by Cubans rather than the state-owned establishments.
But the bottom line is the Trump administration wants to limit US travel to Cuba and the economic benefits that US visitors provide to the Cuban government.
While uncommon, Americans visiting Cuba risk having their stay audited when they come home and could face fines if they engaged in prohibited transactions.
Planning a trip to Cuba is also complicated now that the US State Department has blacklisted a number of Cuban government-owned hotels and banned Americans from staying there.
A lot of Americans will find all these regulations confusing and simply decide not to go to Cuba, which is the outcome some officials in the Trump administration were clearly hoping for.

Why is this happening now?

During the 2016 presidential race, then candidate Donald Trump argued he would have done a better job negotiating the restoration of relations with Cuba than Obama, but Trump said that he essentially agreed with the new policy.
Previously, Trump had tried to open hotels in Cuba and didn't seem opposed to dealing with the Cuban government. But facing a narrow race in Florida, Trump reversed course and promised that state's conservative Cuban exile population that he would overturn the Obama decisions.
After the election, it was revealed that scores of US diplomats had mysteriously fallen ill in Havana, and the Trump administration accused the Cuban government of withholding information about what caused the still unexplained illnesses.
The Cuban government denies any role in whatever it was that took place.
As the economy in Venezuela has melted down, the US is blaming Cuba for propping up the government of Nicolas Maduro. Cuban officials deny providing Maduro with military aid but do send thousands of Cuban doctors and advisers in exchange for Venezuelan oil.
Cuba is one of the few countries still supporting Maduro. Increasingly, officials in the Trump administration say they need to pressure Cuba with sanctions in order to force Maduro out.

Can my visit help Cubans?

The Trump administration says too much of the money spent by American visitors goes to the Cuban government.
Certainly, in an economy as tightly controlled as Cuba's, it's impossible that the government there won't receive some of the money US travelers spend.
That said, there are now countless apartments and houses to rent that have been fixed up by Cubans and the best restaurants on the island are owned and operated by private entrepreneurs.
The increase in US visitors has led to an explosion in Cuba's private sector. Guides, classic car rentals and other tourism-related businesses have emerged to meet the new demand.
These fledgling business people will be the ones who miss American visitors more than anyone.