What the new Cuba travel restrictions mean for tourists

People stand in front of an MSC Cruises ship docked last year in Havana, Cuba. Due to a new travel ban, the cruise line’s Miami-based ship MSC Armonia will no longer be able to call on Havana.

Major U.S. cruise operators say they will no longer sail to Cuba following the Trump administration’s ban last week on travel to the Caribbean island, angering travelers and prompting worries about trip cancellations.

“Due to changes in U.S. policy, the company will no longer be permitted to sail to Cuba effective immediately,” Carnival Corp. said Wednesday.

A spokesman for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. said the company had ceased all calls to Cuba and was modifying sailings.

NCL said guests booked on cruises to Cuba through Sept. 2 have two options: sail the revised itinerary and receive a 50% refund as well as a 50% future cruise credit, or cancel and receive a full refund. Sailings beyond Sept. 2 will be automatically canceled and refunds given to guests, who also will be offered a 20% discount on new voyages within a specific date range.

What the ban covers

The State Department said Tuesday that the U.S. would no longer permit visits to Cuba via passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts, as well as private and corporate aircraft.

Commercial flights were not included. Nonetheless, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines, which started flying to Cuba in 2016, said they were reviewing the revised regulations.

Delta Air Lines said it had stopped accepting bookings to Cuba under the so-called people-to-people license as of midnight Tuesday. Customers who booked under the exemption before that time will be allowed to travel.

“The reduction in the number of travelers will probably mean the end of U.S. commercial air flights from places outside Florida because there won’t be sufficient demand to fill regular flights,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and a professor of government at American University.

No grace period for cruises

The ban was effective as of Wednesday, the U.S. Commerce Department said, giving cruise lines no grace period to change destinations and sowing confusion among cruise passengers.

Both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises said they would stop at different ports and would offer compensation to travelers.

Carnival said guests aboard its Carnival Sensation cruise that set sail Monday would stop at Cozumel, Mexico, instead of Havana, Cuba. The company said the guests would receive a $100 onboard credit for the inconvenience.

Guests with Cuba cruise reservations the rest of the year can remain on the altered sailing and receive a $100 per person onboard credit; move to another itinerary and receive a $50 per person onboard credit; or cancel the booking and receive a full refund.

Guests booked to travel on a 2020 Carnival sailing with a Cuba stop may remain on the sailing or move to another itinerary, but no credit will be offered, or they can cancel for a full refund.

“We are working as quickly as possible to secure alternative itineraries for the remainder of our Cuba voyages,” Carnival said.

Carnival Corp.-owned cruise lines Holland America and Seabourn, which had been scheduled to begin sailing to Cuba in November, both expect to directly contact guests booked on a Cuba cruise with special pricing and replacement ports by June 15.

Owen Torres, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean Cruises, parent company of Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara and Silversea, among other brands, told Cruise Critic that it has altered the itineraries for Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas and Empress of the Seas, which sailed Wednesday and Thursday and had been scheduled to stop in Cuba.

The cruise line said all cruises on the two ships this year will have alternative ports in the Caribbean. It is also working on alternate itineraries for 2020 sailings.

Guests can cancel their current booking for a full refund, or can keep their sailing date with a new itinerary and receive a 50% refund, Royal Caribbean said.

MSC Cruises announced Thursday that the ports of either Key West, Fla., George Town, Cayman Islands or Mexico’s Costa Maya or Cozumel will replace Havana.

Cruisers now sailing on the MSC Armonia will receive $400 per stateroom as refundable onboard credit. For future Armonia sailings that were scheduled to visit Cuba, MSC said it will waive fees if guests wants to change ships and itineraries, or give the $400 per stateroom onboard credit for those who remain on their altered sailing.

The cruise line said it was still working to update all future itineraries.

What the new Cuba travel restrictions mean for tourists

Taxi drivers try to drum up business in Old Havana. The new restrictions don’t extend to travel in the Support for the Cuban People category. Americans can visit the island as long as they don’t frequent state-run businesses and institutions. Instead, they must stay at private homes, eat in private restaurants, visit independently owned shops and devote their time to engaging with Cubans.

Angry travelers

Cruise lines are nimble and can rearrange itineraries. Ships add and subtract ports often, such as when a hurricane is hurtling toward the region or an island is recovering from a natural disaster. The ships will do the same in the face of the Cuba ban.

“For cruises where a stop in Cuba is part of a wider Caribbean itinerary, it will be a matter of replacing just the Cuba calls with another port in the Caribbean,” said Erica Silverstein, senior editor at Cruise Critic, a website devoted to cruising. “For Cuba-focused cruises, it’s possible that they may replace the itinerary entirely.”

While cruise lines can easily swap ports, guests might have purchased the itinerary entirely for Cuba, Wolfe Research analyst Jared Shojaian noted.

Travelers took to Twitter to vent their anger and frustration over the forced changes in their vacation plans.

“Has anyone’s cruise to Cuba from @CruiseNorwegian been rerouted yet? If so where did they change the port of call to? Im (sic) booked for July and PISSED! Thanks Trump!” tweeted Sabrina Carollo @superbri_22.

Susan Berland, a parenting coach from Huntersville, N.C., said she was enraged that a vacation designed around visiting Cuba had been upended.

“To say I’m angry is an understatement. This whoe (sic) cruise was chosen around going to Cuba and now we can’t,” tweeted @SusanBerland.

Neither responded to requests for further comment.

Not everything banned

But while the U.S. government has closed some windows, the door to Cuba remains open a crack.

“We are really committed to continuing trips to Cuba,” said Peggy Goldman, founder and president of Friendly Planet Travel, which offers three itineraries to the Caribbean island. “This not the kiss of death for Cuba.”

According to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which issued the restrictions, travelers who have made any transactions related to their trips to Cuba — such as booking flights, hotels or tours — before Wednesday can proceed with their plans. Cruising was removed from that grandfathered group, however.

John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a nonprofit that helps foster connections between the two countries, summed it up as, “Cruises are dead in the water. They’re over.”

Added Goldman, “This ruling was intended to stop mass tourism, mainly by the cruises.”

The rule also put the kibosh on people-to-people trips, the Obama administration program that encouraged Americans to interact with locals. Yet it preserved the similar Support for the Cuban People category. This means Americans can visit the island as long as they don’t frequent state-run businesses and institutions, such as hotels and restaurants. Instead, they must stay at private residences, eat in private restaurants, visit independently owned shops and devote their time to engaging with Cubans through such activities as volunteering in community projects.

What the new Cuba travel restrictions mean for tourists

Taxi drivers try to drum up business in Old Havana. The new restrictions don’t extend to travel in the Support for the Cuban People category. Americans can visit the island as long as they don’t frequent state-run businesses and institutions. Instead, they must stay at private homes, eat in private restaurants, visit independently owned shops and devote their time to engaging with Cubans.

Goldman said her company was already moving in that direction. She uses an independent bus company, not one owned by the Cuban army; taxis operated by private individuals; and guides who are historians, with the money going toward the rehabilitation of Havana’s buildings. Guests bunk in private homes called casa particulares and dine in private restaurants, or paladares.

“We will comb through all of our tours to comply with the other licenses,” she said. “It’s really not difficult for us to shift over.”

Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, a travel company that leads tours of the island, said travelers who booked trips before the deadline will not see any changes to their itineraries. For future tours, his team will tweak certain elements to include private accommodations and excursions that comply with the law.

“The rule only went so far as to include these two categories,” he said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Individuals, families and groups of friends who travel under the aegis of the Support for the Cuban People category also must keep a record of their engagement activities for five years, McAuliff said. For example, the category requires U.S. visitors to follow a full-time schedule of experiences that “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba.”

“It’s very unclear what these activities are,” McAuliff said, “but they are consistent with independent travelers.”

The order for what is not permitted is less ambiguous: no substantial free time or recreation allowed.

Change may be temporary

Of course, these rules could be a temporary obstacle to freer travel to Cuba. McAuliff said Congress is expected to consider a bill that would end all travel restrictions, and it has garnered support from a bipartisan majority.

“The question is whether Trump will veto it,” he said.

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Reuters and The Washington Post contributed to this report.