After last month’s US travel ban to Cuba, there has been a knock-on effect for UK customers, with cancelled or amended itineraries. Sam Ballard investigates
Last month’s news that the US government has banned virtually all travel to Cuba was met with incredulity by the cruise industry.
Tourism to Cuba had been stymied since the US implemented a trade embargo on the communist island in 1958. As a result, no ship – passenger or otherwise – travelled between the US or Cuba. Tourism, at least from the US, stopped. The decision cut off what was a burgeoning tourism scene before it really got started, and put Cuba in a state of virtual stasis.
That was until Carnival Corporation’s Fathom brand sailed to Havana in 2016 – after the diplomatic efforts of Barack Obama’s administration and the Cuban government thawed relations.
In the following years, more companies were granted licences to operate in Cuba and tourism began to boom. The likes of Azamara, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International all called at Cuba. Virgin Voyages even named their Cuba itineraries Havana after Dark – pitching the capital as a sultry destination for its “Sailors”to enjoy when the sun goes down.
When the ban was announced, Clia revealed that 800,000 cruise bookings would be affected.
Most cruise lines have either diverted their ships to places such as Mexico, Key West or other Caribbean Islands (and offered onboard credit for the change at short notice) or cancelled the cruise completely. Oceania recently revealed that it would be doing the latter – and replacing its Cuba cruises with itineraries to Myanmar instead.
On the surface, Cuba is that perfect mix of old-school glamour, history and great weather. If you go there, the chances are it’s because you are interested in seeing the historic island where the likes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara began their revolution, buy a cigar, drink some rum – and also want to see
what life really is like in a country that has been “frozen in time” by communism.
Look a little deeper and you will discover that life for most Cubans is a struggle. Living on a few pesos a day, it’s a challenge to make ends meet. By allowing tourism between Cuba and the United States, more money was coming into Cuba and more people were being brought out of poverty. Or, as my tour guide told me earlier this year: “Working as a guide for the American ships is like winning a multimillion dollar recording contract.” Through tips, he could earn in a single afternoon many times more than a doctor could in a month.
The reasons given by the Trump administration was that Cuba is propping up governments like Venezuela and Nicaragua. Steve Mnuchin, the US treasury secretary, said that the ban would keep American tourist dollars out of the hands of the Cuban military.
It’s questionable whether this tells the whole story and, regardless of the above, the decision to isolate Cuba did not work between 1958 and 2016, so it is unlikely to work now. Tourism is a major force for diplomacy and by banning travel to Cuba the Americans are no longer able to wield that card.
Regardless of where you stand on boycotts – James Thornton, boss of Intrepid Travel, once said he was against them, and that’s good enough for me – by building tourism up properly in a destination, it is a huge economic enabler to the local population, which may otherwise struggle under oppressive regimes. Once tourism is established, and it becomes a major part of GDP, governments will do whatever they can to protect it.
Trump’s decision to ban travel to Cuba will hurt Cuban people far more than it will the governments of either Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua.
How Brits can still cruise to Cuba
British cruise lines are not affected by the travel ban, which specifically prevents trade between Cuba and the US. However, there are only a handful of options. One is Fred Olsen’s 13-night Classic Caribbean & Havana Highlights, which sails from Barbados. German-owned Hapag-Lloyd and British-based Marella Cruises also still offer cruises to Cuba.