Cuba-US travel begins, but with restrictions


As published in the Cayman Compass – January 16, 2015

Miniature flags representing Cuba and the U.S. are displayed on the dash of an American classic car in Havana, Cuba. The Obama administration is putting a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba as of Friday, significantly loosening restrictions on American trade and investment. – PHOTO: AP AP

As tourist routes open Friday morning between the U.S. and Cuba, Cayman is braced for changes, although the meaning and breadth of adjustments remain to be seen.

President of the Cayman Islands Tourist Association Ken Hydes thinks the opening will be slow, if steady, and the changes gradual. Cayman, he said, will not suffer greatly.

“What I expect, really, is that we are a different destination and a different market,” he said, reiterating remarks last week in which he indicated that Havana would require considerable time and investment to upgrade its facilities to international standards.

“It will be a curiosity,” he said on Thursday, noting that travelers to Cuba may finish their excursion with several days in top-class local accommodation, employing international-standard telecommunications, banking and transport facilities.

A recent Cayman Islands meeting of international hoteliers, he said, agreed the Cuba opening, announced Dec. 17 by U.S. President Barack Obama, was unlikely to siphon significant tourist numbers immediately, and pointed to Thursday’s State Department announcement that U.S. travelers still had to qualify under at least one of a dozen categories before traveling to Cuba.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of State listed the 12 categories: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.

The document did not explain, however, how travelers could qualify for the designations or who would review the self-assignments.

A senior U.S. Embassy official in Jamaica said questions still surrounded the meaning of the categories.

“You once needed to apply for a license to travel [to Cuba] under the 12 categories,” he said. “These remain the same, but now, if you meet the conditions, you do not need a license.”

Washington’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on Thursday said general tourism was still prohibited.

While a “case-by-case” license was no longer necessary, the office nonetheless said official regulations continued “not to authorize travel for tourist activities, which is prohibited by statute,” and that authorized travel would still “contain certain restrictions appropriate to each category of activities.”

Minister for Tourism Moses Kirkconnell agreed that changes would be gradual: “In terms of the impact this latest move will have on tourism arrivals in the Cayman Islands, the ministry and our tourism industry partners remain watchful of developments between the U.S. and Cuba, but we are not unduly concerned about losing core market share at this juncture.”

“Additionally,” he said, “it is important to note that while trade and travel restrictions have been somewhat eased in various categories, the ban on unrestricted travel between the U.S. and Cuba for tourism purposes still remains in place.”

Cayman Airways CEO Fabian Whorms said new U.S. regulations would “allow U.S. carriers eventually to start operating direct scheduled flights to and from Cuba, but the rules and/or guidelines to achieve that are yet to be defined.”

He did not, however, anticipate any immediate decline in Cayman Airways passengers passing through Cayman en route to Havana.

“We are not perturbed with what is happening right now. For the moment it’s not that much of a change for our passengers traveling between Cuba and the USA,” Mr. Whorms said, making clear that “about 100 percent of our [Cuba] traffic is non-U.S. passport holders.

The previous U.S. restrictions did not affect those passengers and this easing “is not relevant to them either,” Mr. Whorms said.

He was reluctant to disclose the number of passengers flying to Cuba from Owen Roberts International Airport, saying the figure was “commercially sensitive,” and he wanted “to preserve the airline’s market intelligence from potential competition.”

However, a Department of Immigration response to a 2008 Freedom of Information request offered a sense of magnitude: Almost 70,000 in-transit passengers moved through the airport that year – 35,087 arrivals and 34,836 departures.