Latest Cuba restrictions force tour operators to adjust

Latest Cuba restrictions force tour operators to adjust

The Trump administration’s decision to ban commercial
flights from the U.S. to Cuban destinations other than Havana could cause
complications for tour operators. However, where needed, operators will have
the option to use charter flights as an alternative. 

The latest restrictions, which take effect during the second
week of December, will put an end to daily American Airlines flights from Miami
to the Cuban cities of Camaguey, Hoguin, Santa Clara, Santiago and Varadero. JetBlue
will end flights from Fort Lauderdale to Camaguey, Holguin and Santa Clara. 

In a letter requesting the Department of Transportation to
issue the new rules, secretary of state Mike Pompeo wrote that the purpose of
restrictions is to strengthen the economic consequences of the Cuban
government’s “ongoing repression of the Cuban people and its support for
Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela.”

The restrictions don’t directly affect all Cuba tour
operators. For example, Cuba Candela flies its clients in and out of Havana
only, said CEO Chad Olin. 

But the new rules will force sister tour operators InsightCuba
and Friendly Planet to make adjustments, said InsightCuba president Tom Popper.
In the past few months, he explained, Friendly Planet’s “Captivating Cuba” tour
and InsightCuba’s “Classic Cuba” tour began departing Cuba from the north
central city of Santa Clara. Now those itineraries will go back to using
departure flights from Havana. As a result, guests will leave Cienfuegos on the
last day of the tour to head back to Havana for the return flight. 

“What’s great is that none of the tour programming
needs to change,” Popper said. 

Another InsightCuba tour, “Undiscovered Cuba,” departs the
island from the eastern city of Holguin, which is much farther from Havana than
is Santa Clara. For that itinerary, the company is looking into replacing
commercial air service with charter service, Popper said. 

The new restrictions, Popper said, will have an impact on
Cuban-Americans visiting family outside of Havana. But for InsightCuba, using
charter service from Holguin to Miami “will represent virtually no disruption
to passengers.”

Prior to the decision by the Obama administration to restore
commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba in 2016, all flights between the two
countries were operated via charter. The onset of commercial service put an end
to many of those charter flights. Now, charters could have a resurgence to satisfy demand
for travel by Cuban-Americans to secondary Cuban markets, said John Kavulich,
president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. 

While charter flights will remain available, there will be
inconveniences. Charter operations to Cuba, Kavulich said, are more expensive
than commercial flights. And the operators historically haven’t accepted credit
cards. 

Other inconveniences include the inability to check luggage
through to a final destination, lack of access to frequent-flyer programs and
flight schedules that aren’t as likely to be synchronized as they would be with
a commercial carrier selling single-itinerary travel.  

Beyond that, Kavulich said, many travelers are simply more
comfortable flying on familiar airlines. 

“All of that adds to the anxiety factor, which, of course,
is the goal of the Trump administration — to increase the level of anxiety to
the point where the non-family members will go somewhere else,” he said.

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