The Trump administration rolled out new restrictions on trade with Cuba on Wednesday in an effort to "channel economic activities away" from the nation’s military, intelligence and security services while pushing Americans to support Cuba’s private small businesses.
The moves will make some travel to Cuba more cumbersome and expensive but ultimately will have little effect on those in the Tampa Bay area intent on visiting Cuba.
Commercial travel by airline and cruise ship from Tampa to Havana will continue.
The biggest change affecting U.S. travelers: They will have to pay a U.S. government-certified travel company to lead them through Cuba rather than sightseeing on their own.
Travel companies in the Tampa Bay area say they still can operate under these new rules.
"ASC International USA is against any type of travel regulation for U.S. citizens," said Vicente Amor, vice president of the Tampa travel agency. Still, he added, "the new regulations do not represent a big change for us."
Trump announced in June that the United States would take a tougher stand on travel and trade with Cuba, but it took until now for the State Department to compile a list of Cuban companies with which Americans are prohibited from doing business. The 180 companies on the list are operated in some manner by the island nation’s military.
The list includes 87 hotels, 27 of which are in Havana — the only Cuban city directly linked to Tampa with flights and cruises.
Amor said he typically uses Havana’s Hotel Nacional, Melia Cohiba and Melia Habana, none of which are on the banned list.
Frank Reno, president of Tampa’s Cuba Executive Travel, has clients who like four of the banned hotels, including Havana’s Hotel Ambos Mundos, but they have other options such as Hotel Parque, boutique hotels and private bed-and-breakfasts.
"My concern is they will supplement the list," Reno said.
That does remain an option, the Trump administration has said.
"None of this is a death sentence," said Suzanne Carlson, founder of Tarpon Springs’ Carlson Maritime Travel, who will also lose access to four Havana hotels she booked. "We can work around it all. I have others I recommend."
Americans had been able to visit Cuba on their own as long as they indicated they were traveling for one of 12 reasons acceptable to the United States. Travel for tourism is prohibited. One commonly checked category was "education," but that is no longer allowed because enforcement proved difficult.
U.S. government-certified travel companies ensure that Americans engage in meaningful educational activities.
Tampa travel companies were relieved to see that their tour operator partner, the state-run Havanatur, was not on the list of banned companies.
In addition, anyone who booked travel accommodations to Cuba before the new restrictions take effect today is grandfathered in under the old rules.
Among other provisions of the new restrictions:
•?Americans can still bring back an unlimited amount of rum and cigars under the new restrictions.
•?Agriculture and medical devices can still be sold to the Cuban government. Other items can be sold only directly to a Cuban citizen, though under Cuban law all imports must go through the government.
•?Cuba’s Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, home to its largest maritime cargo port, now falls under the U.S. ban unless a company had already signed an agreement to operate a facility there.
U.S. travelers might still stay away from Cuba for fear they’ll inadvertently violate one of the new restrictions and face a fine, said John Kavulich, president of New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
And defiant travelers might flout the new restrictions, Kavulich said with a chuckle. He used as an example the now-banned Cuban soft drink company Tropi-Cola.
"You might likely see an increase in selfies posted on Facebook of U.S. visitors drinking a Tropi-Cola," Kavulich said, "and daring the Trump administration to sanction them."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.