1. Florida Politics

Trump's tougher Cuba policy having little impact on Tampa area

A Cuban and an American flag hang in the atrium on the Carnival Paradise at Port Tampa Bay. Despite President Trump announcing a stricter Cuba travel policy a year ago, both the cruises and flights from Tampa to Havana are thriving. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Jun. 13, 2018

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.

RELATED: Trump's Cuba regulations are stricter but will not end travel from Tampa Bay area?

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.

RELATED: Young leader rises in Tampa's Cuban dissident movement, but who will follow him?

"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.

RELATED: Tampa cruises will add millions to Cuban economy

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.

RELATED: Can Tampa's Cuban-American population sustain its Havana flights?

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.

RELATED: Military's control of tourism may influence Trump policy on Cuba travel

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 Follow @PGuzzoTimes.


  1. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  2. Maurice A. Ferré at his Miami home earlier this year. JOSE A. IGLESIAS  |  Miami Herald
    He served as mayor for 12 years and set the stage for Miami to become an international city.
  3. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, during a Feb. 7, 2019, meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    ‘One test should not determine the rest of your life,’ Rep. Susan Valdes says.
  4. Vice President Joe Biden, right, talks to supporters as former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, left, stands near during a campaign stop at at Century Village in Boca Raton, Fla., Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Crist is locked in a tight race against Gov. Rick Scott in one of the most negative gubernatorial campaigns in Florida history. The two disagree on most major issues, including health care, the minimum wage, Cuba policy, gay marriage and medical marijuana. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz) ORG XMIT: FLAD102 ALAN DIAZ  |  AP
    The Florida Republican-turned-Democrat said Biden’s ‘record of getting things done speaks for itself.’
  5. FILE - In this June 20, 2018 photo, immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children a former Job Corps site that now houses them in Homestead, Fla.  Migrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border last year suffered post-traumatic stress and other serious mental health problems, according to a government watchdog report obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday. The chaotic reunification process only added to their trauma. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File) BRYNN ANDERSON  |  AP
    Since Homestead’s closing on Aug. 3, at least $33,120,000 has been paid to Caliburn, the company contracted by the government to run Homestead.
  6. The economies of Canada and Florida go together like, well, palm fronds and maple leaves, as seen outside the Sweetwater RV Resort in Zephyrhills. (Times file photo) KATE CALDWELL  |  Tampa Bay Times
    To qualify under the proposed Canadian Snowbirds Act, visitors would have to be older than 50 and would have to own or rent a home here.
  7. The Florida House Education Committee focuses on early education in its first meeting of the 2020 session. The Florida Channel
    School security and early learning get top billing in the first committee meetings of the looming 2020 session.
  8. Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks to an unidentified man outside of Tampa Bay Academy Monday, April 15, 2019 in Tampa. CHRIS URSO  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Richard Corcoran has convinced the State Board of Education to sign off on a new funding formula for the 28-college system, which, with more than 320,000 students, is widely viewed as one of the...
  9. Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Miami while visiting Ball & Chain in Little Havana for a meet-and-greet with Hispanic voters on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. [CARL JUSTE CJUSTE | Miami Herald]
    While candidates vie for votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states, the struggle in Florida six months from the primary election is about big money.
  10. A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge. VRAGOVIC, WILL  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The lost money is from unpaid tolls stemming from problems with the vendor Conduent State & Local Solutions.