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Future in doubt for Tampa-Havana travel with new restrictions from Trump administration

MONICA HERNDON   |   TimesThe Carnival Paradise cruise ship departs from Tampa on June 29, 2017. The inaugural Carnival Cruise from Tampa to Havana, with 2,800 passengers, departed Thursday afternoon from the Port of Tampa. Carnival Paradise is the largest cruise ship sailing from the US to Cuba, according to Gus Antorcha, executive vice president at Carnival.
MONICA HERNDON | TimesThe Carnival Paradise cruise ship departs from Tampa on June 29, 2017. The inaugural Carnival Cruise from Tampa to Havana, with 2,800 passengers, departed Thursday afternoon from the Port of Tampa. Carnival Paradise is the largest cruise ship sailing from the US to Cuba, according to Gus Antorcha, executive vice president at Carnival.
Published Jun. 5, 2019

If you've been putting off that trip to Cuba, you may have waited too long.

The Trump administration on Tuesday announced new restrictions on American travel to the island nation 90 miles off Florida's shore, including an end to cruises and group tours.

Tampa hosts cruises as well as flights to Havana.

"This is a huge mistake," said Suzanne Carlson, founder Tarpon Springs' Carlson Maritime Travel. "This is going to have an impact on those of us who book travel to Cuba."

READ MORE: Cuba travel restrictions coming, but flights and cruises from Tampa continue for now

Group and educational trips, otherwise known as "people to people" travel, now become illegal. The short-lived opportunities introduced Americans to Cuban artists and business people and taught the nation's history.

American trips to Cuba purely for tourism have been illegal since travel and trade sanctions were levied on the socialist nation in 1960.

But under executive orders issued during the Obama administration, regulations on travel to Cuba were so loose that "the activity was perceived as tourism," said John Kavulich, president of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

The new Department of Commerce guidelines say, "cruise ships, sailboats, fishing boats and other similar aircraft and vessels generally will be prohibited from going to Cuba."

The Trump administration said the move is a response to Cuba's "destabilizing role" in the Western Hemisphere, specifically its support of Venezuelan President Nicola Maduro.

"Now the funds of an unethical tourism will not be filling the coffers of their oppressors," said Rafael Pizano, a Tampa spokesman for Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate.

READ MORE: Ads take aim at cruises to Cuba

Carlson of Maritime Travel said the new restrictions will hurt a nascent Cuban private sector dependent on American travelers.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, said American travel to Cuba is important because U.S. citizens "serve as an integral part of our efforts to promote the spread of democracy and ensure the security of our region."

Anyone who had already booked a now-banned trip is grandfathered in and still can go.

What's more, commercial flights to Cuba can continue. But the question is whether airlines will still have enough passengers to make them worthwhile. People-to-people group tours have been the most popular form of U.S. travel to Cuba.

Southwest Airlines has flown daily from Tampa to Havana since December 2016. The airline said it is reviewing the changes.

The Tampa Bay area has the nation's third largest Cuban-American population.

Tampa International Airport said 141,826 passengers flew between Tampa and Havana in fiscal 2018, up from 109,317 in 2017.

Americans still can legally visit Cuba through other categories of travel, including professional and university research, athletic competitions, support for the Cuban people and family visits.

The category "support for the Cuban people" might still provide the typical traveler with wiggle room to make the journey, said Collin Laverty, head of Cuba Educational Travel in Washington, D.C.

"It is very broadly defined," Laverty said. "You have to link up with independent Cuban individuals and empower them in some way. One could argue that by going to private businesses and supporting them, that you are supporting the Cuban people as long as you do that for the majority of your time in Cuba."

Carlson with Maritime Travel's echoed those sentiments.

"I don't think this is a death sentence," she said, "but it is stricter on what you can and cannot do."

READ MORE: The federal government says this man rightfully owns Havana's cruise port

Laverty said the cruises might argue that their operations are grandfathered in because "they worked with their Cuban partners to arrange the cruise travel and the excursions on the ground" before the Tuesday announcement.

"But on its face," Laverty said, "it looks like all boat travel from the U.S. to Cuba, including cruises, is being canceled."

Two cruise lines sail from Tampa to Havana. Carnival did not respond to a request for comments. Royal Caribbean said it was studying the changes, but in the meantime would alert customers that it is altering itineraries for cruises today and Thursday to avoid stopping in Cuba.

It also likely means the end of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club's race to Havana, relaunched in 2017 after a 58-year hiatus.

The most recent race was held in March. Scheduled for every other year, the next race was to be in 2021 — but a lot can happen between now and then, said George Pennington, regatta general of the yacht club.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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