The Cuban tourism industry has gone through some ups and downs throughout the years. During the latter years of the Obama presidency, U.S. travelers enjoyed a great amount of leniency regarding visits to Cuba; in 2017, President Trump rolled back that leniency.
The Trump rollbacks were intended to starve the island nation’s state-run economy of U.S. tourism dollars, increasing pressure for regime change. However, the rollbacks don’t seem to be having their intended effects, as Cuba’s tourism industry continues to thrive.
Trump’s goal with Cuba is nothing new. In fact, promoting regime change through economic collapse is a decades-old foreign policy position for the United States. But Cuba survived before the Obama rollbacks, and it continues to survive now.
Although Obama’s policies were aimed more at promoting private sector growth, Trump’s policies are aimed at keeping any U.S. dollars whatsoever out of the Cuban government’s hands. Nevertheless, his stricter “people-to-people” travel laws to Cuba has had a possibly unintended side effect in the nation – less money flowing into private businesses from U.S. travelers.
The law stipulates that U.S. travelers must go to Cuba with an approved travel agency and provide an itinerary of scheduled, educational activities. In other words, Cuba-bound travelers from the United States must visit the island under a more rigidly-structured itinerary than before. So if a local business is not chosen by the travel agency, or is off the “beaten path,” then it is unlikely that it will receive any American customers. In addition, many tour groups depend largely on Cuban government transportation and guides, which could very well be achieving the exact opposite of the new policy’s intentions.
Despite this bad news, however, those in the tourism industry are still satisfied with the amount of travelers coming to Cuba outside of the United States, and remain optimistic about the future. “Tourism has grown in Cuba, with the exception of American tourism,” said a private tour guide named Nelson Lopez. “But I’m sure that sometime soon they’ll be back.” The new policies under Trump have not changed the ubiquitous cruises or flights to Cuba.
Most everyone with a tie to the tourism industry has noticed the marked decline in American travelers, even those working on a smaller scale. “There was an explosion of tourists in the months after President Obama’s detente announcement. They were everywhere!” said Rodolfo Morales, a retired government worker who rents two rooms in his home for around $30 a night. “Since then, it’s fallen off.”
Another small-scale bed-and-breakfast owner, Yunaika Estanque, says that she has been able to deal with a sharp drop in American guests because a British tour agency still sends her clients. “Without a doubt our best year was 2016, before the Trump presidency,” she said. “I’ve been talking with other bed-and-breakfast owners and they’re in bad shape.”
Despite falling numbers for some tourism entrepreneurs, the fact remains that 2017 was the best year ever for tourism. Last year saw a record 4.7 million visitors bringing in over $3 billion to Cuba’s economy, even with the setback of Hurricane Irma’s destruction of some popular tourist regions in Cuba.