TAMPA — June 16 will mark a year since President Trump announced a tougher Cuba travel policy, but unlike in much of the nation, the changes don’t seem to have hurt local bookings to the island.
The number of people traveling between Tampa and Havana has increased dramatically.
Tampa International Airport said 71,376 passengers flew between Tampa and Havana through April of this fiscal year. That’s up from 53,512 during the same period in 2017, an increase of 33 percent.
Overall, despite Trump’s vow to a Miami crowd last year to roll back much of what his predecessor Barack Obama had done with Cuba, not much has changed here for those who want to engage the island nation.
Cruise ships are sailing more often to Havana. Exchange programs continue.
Residents can even stay in Cuban military-operated hotels, despite Trump’s directive that Americans can’t book rooms in such lodgings.
Language in the mandate says Americans can’t make direct payments to those hotels, said Tom Popper, president of the New York-based InsightCuba travel company.
But U.S. travel agents can still legally book these hotels for clients by indirectly paying for rooms through a third-party property management company in Cuba, Popper said. He said his lawyers have cleared that with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
When asked about the indirect payments, OFAC responded via email, "authorized travelers may not engage in a direct financial transaction with entities and sub-entities, including hotels, on the Cuba Restricted List."
Pressed again about indirect payments, OFAC did not respond.
"If this is the case, how can one consider this administration dependable?" asked Rafael Pizano, a spokesman for Tampa’s Casa de Cuba, which argues against engagement with the socialist nation. "The president has taken steps, yet he needs to come through. Flights should be more restricted and cruises halted."
Both are thriving locally.
"We see nothing to suggest the administration’s policy direction on Cuba travel has impacted our bookings," said Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, which offers daily flights from Tampa to Havana.
Carnival cruise lines will add another 20 Havana voyages in 2019, bringing the total to 31. And Royal Caribbean is now using a larger ship that can carry more than 2,700 passengers to Havana, compared to 1,602 previously.
"Havana has been a positive offering by the cruise lines to the port," said Wade Elliot, vice president of marketing for Port Tampa Bay.
Going to Cuba for tourist reasons has long been illegal under U.S. law. But then-President Obama made it easier to visit for educational purposes by allowing individual travel.
Among Trump’s June 2017 directives was to cancel individual travel to Cuba so the only way to visit was as part of a U.S. government-approved tour group -— a pricier trip. It was thought this would diminish the number of Americans in Cuba.
And that has been the case outside areas like Tampa with large Cuban-American populations.
Overall, in the first quarter of 2018, 40 percent fewer Americans visited Cuba than the same period last year, according to Cuban government statistics.
But InsightCuba’s Popper believes that drop is because Americans thought travel to Cuba was banned outright. Once the confusion cleared, he said, his company has "seen a steady and healthy growth, about 10 percent each month."
Still, the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health will not send students to Cuba next school year after doing so twice last year.
In part that’s due to Trump policy penalizing U.S. citizens for spending money with military-managed companies, even accidentally, said Jesse Casanova, the College of Public Health’s international programs coordinator.
But other local institutions continue Cuba exchanges.
The University of Tampa still offers students the opportunity to study there, and the Florida Aquarium will continue to study Cuba’s coral reefs.
Whether area business people are seeking opportunities in Cuba is harder to quantify.
While Trump banned Americans from entering into any contract with a company run by Cuba’s military-controlled subsidiary GAESA, which manages as much as 60 percent of the economy, opportunities remain.
But American businessmen are hesitant to announce Cuba initiatives, said John Kavulich, president of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
"They don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a presidential tweet,’’ he said. "It simply isn’t worth it."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.