Cuba, once bustling with heavy-spending Americans, sees steep decline in U.S. travelers

Cuba, once bustling with heavy-spending Americans, sees steep decline in U.S. travelersHAVANA, Apr. 7th U.S. cruise ships still call on Cuban ports and U.S. airlines, such as American and Southwest, still list Havana and Camaguey as destinations.

But Cuba – not long ago bustling with good-tipping, heavy-spending Americans – is experiencing a steep decline in U.S. travelers.

Reasons vary, including new restrictions on travel imposed by President Trump and Hurricane Irma’s brush with the island last year. But the main reason less Americans are traveling to the communist island is one of perception, said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba’s, a New York-based tour operator that organizes trips to Cuba.

On April 19, Raul Castro is expected to step down as president of Cuba and be replaced by Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel – a move not expected to impact the dearth of U.S. visitors to Cuba.

Trump has taken a more aggressive stance against the Castro-led government, making U.S. visitors hesitant to travel to the island, Popper said.

“Very little changed to the regulations,” said Popper, who is projecting a 25%-30% drop in passengers to Cuba this year. “But the message has had a much bigger impact.”

Americans eagerly began streaming to Cuba shortly after President Barack Obama announced a détente between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014. Airlines were allowed to fly to Cuba and cruise ships began docking at the Bay of Havana. Airbnb spread through the island, making it even easier for U.S. travelers.

Trump reversed some of Obama’s policies, including restricting “people-to-people” visas that many Americans were using to venture to the island. The U.S. maintains an economic embargo against Cuba that prohibits travel there solely for tourism, though there are other categories under which travelers can visit the island.

But other Obama changes, such as allowing cruise ships and airlines to travel to Cuba, were left untouched.

“The public is presuming, based on the announcements (last year), that regulations have changed significantly,” Popper said. “But what we’re looking at is really much of the same opportunity for people to legally travel to Cuba.”

The number of American travelers to Cuba rose to 619,000 last year, more than six times the pre-Obama level, according to Cuban figures obtained by the Associated Press. But amid the boom — an 18% increase over 2016 — owners of private restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts are reporting a sharp drop-off.

Pressing “pause” on a historic detente, President Donald Trump thrust the U.S. and Cuba back on a path toward open hostility Friday with a roll back of President Obama’s Cuba policy, and a blistering denunciation of Cuba’s government. (June 16) AP

The Trump administration has said the rollback of Obama’s Cuba policies are aimed at cutting off dollars to the Cuban government, which controls many tourist destinations, and diverting them to individual Cuban entrepreneurs. But the changes have significantly cut down the number of U.S. travelers there and made it harder on budding Cuban bed-and-breakfast and restaurant owners on the island, said Ted Henken, a Barush College Latino studies professor with expertise on Cuba.

“It might shift a small percentage of people to the private sector but it’s going to do that at the cost of significantly reducing the overall flow of people going,” he said. “You’re giving them a larger slice of a significantly smaller pie.”

Also, U.S. officials last year accused Cuba of “sonic attacks” on U.S. diplomats on the island and the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans not to travel to Cuba in lieu of the mysterious attacks, which had a dampening effect on U.S. visitors to Cuba, industry officials said.

Densil Richardson, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Central Havana, said he has felt the steep drop in U.S. visitors. Shortly after Obama’s announcement, his four-bedroom building would fill with about 80% Americans. These days, they make up less than 5% of his clientele.

The Americans would only stay a few days at a time – far less than the 15 to 20 days that Europeans or Australians tend to stay – but spent much more on local restaurants, taxis and shops and were much better tippers, Richardson said. Some of his friends who owned bed-and-breakfasts have closed since the Americans stopped coming, he said.

“They feel their absence,” Richardson said.

Popper, of InsightCuba, said he hopes travelers realize not much has changed and it’s still very possible to travel to Cuba. It just may take a few more phone calls.

“You can have a company do everything for you – or part of it – and you can still see Cuba on your own,” he said.