Cuba's the hot new destination —if you can satisfy all the rules
BY JUSTIN BACHMAN
It's best to clear up one thing first if you're a U.S. citizen: Cuba is
not the new Aruba or Montego Bay.
Congress has prohibited American tourists from visiting what John F.
Kennedy once called "that imprisoned island" since 1960, and the
resumption of commercial air service won't change that any time soon. A
Cuba trip requires that your reason for travel aligns with one of a
dozen permitted categories of activities the U.S. Treasury Department
has outlined as part of the gradual easing of travel restrictions.
Hurdles or not, plenty of Americans are likely to hop a plane to see an
island that's been verboten for decades, mixing wanderlust with the
allure of the unknown. But before U.S. travelers can start cursing
spotty Cuban Wi-Fi, they'll need to run a modest regulatory gauntlet,
from satisfying the proper travel category to obtaining visas to health
insurance to sorting out whether a U.S. bank-issued credit or debit card
even works there.
The first obstacle is determining where a trip fits into the permissible
reasons for visiting Cuba. No men in black suits and sunglasses will
grill you at the gate about why you're going or even about why you went
and airlines aren't legally on the hook for fibbers flying south to hit
the beach or stroll Havana's sunny Malecón. But make no mistake: The
category you choose when booking a ticket isn't just a checked box, it's
a legal affidavit. Clicking one of them willy-nilly isn't wise since the
U.S. government requires airlines to retain them for five years.
Each airline will probably handle the online booking process slightly
different. American Airlines Group Inc., for example, presents all 12
categories on its site and requires that a customer's trip fit one
before proceeding. JetBlue Airways Corp. will make ticket buyers select
a specific category.
"We don't want to be in the position of telling customers what category
they qualify for, so yes, there is going to be some onus placed on the
traveler to determine which one of these [Treasury] categories they
apply for," says Jakob Van Leeuwen, an international planning analyst
for JetBlue, which announced Thursday that it has scheduled its first
Cuba flight for Aug. 31.
After that there's health insurance to sort out, since Cuba mandates
that foreign travelers be covered. JetBlue plans to bundle an insurance
policy, from Asistur, a Havana-based insurer, into its tickets to
address the government requirement (the $3 per day premium covers
accidents and injuries). Other airlines are still working through ways
to streamline the logistics. American, for example, has contracted with
a Cuba Travel Services, a Los Angeles-area charter operator to help
arrange visas for customers. The company will call each passenger booked
for Cuba to help sort through the visa and other requirements.
"When people go to an airline's web site and they say'Here are the
categories and I have to select one, what does that mean?'They're going
to have questions," said Michael Zuccato, general manager of Cuba Travel
Services, which is transitioning from a Cuba tour-operator to a service
provider. The company's goal is to render a trip to Cuba as simple as
any other destination by the time a passenger shows up at the airport,
Both American and JetBlue also plan to acquire Cuban "tourist" visas to
sell at their U.S. gateway airports for those who aren't traveling for
business, journalism or other reasons that require a specific Cuban
visa. Airport-sold visa prices haven't been announced, although JetBlue
says it won't add a profit or service fee.
Of the 10airlines that have been granted routes from the U.S., American
is the largest. Coming in after JetBlue's inaugural flight next month,
it announced its first flight from Miami to Cienfuegos will be Sept. 7.
A smaller carrier, Florida- based Silver Airways Corp., begins service
from Fort Lauderdale a week before. The rest are still making plans.
For the 20 daily flights allowed to Havana, airline requests for routes
exceeded the supply by a 3-1 margin. Several carriers and airports,
including JetBlue, Silver,and Denver, objected to the tentative grants
made last week. Replies to the objections are due Friday, and the U.S.
Department of Transportation could issue the final awards soon after. At
that point, the carriers will be ready to announce their schedules and
fares. They have 90 days to start the new service.
The vast majority of the U.S. airline business to Cuba is expected to be
"VFR travel," or those visiting friends and relatives, with most of the
traffic originating in Florida. That's where most of the Cuban diaspora
in America has settled, and the state that collected the bulk of the
recent DOT routes.
Those looking to fly to Cuba may want to follow the lead of their
seafaring brethren. Fathom, the Carnival Corp. brand that began cruises
there in May, advises travelers who organize their own people-to-people
exchange programs to retain records of their activities, per Treasury
guidelines. Specifically, Fathom tells customers to document their time
on the island with "a combination of receipts, travel journal,
itinerary" and keep the documentation for five years. The cruise line
has no insight into whether U.S. officials audit this information,
spokeswoman Jody Venturoni said. But better safe than sorry.
The same guidelines apply to air travelers, although carriers aren't
likely to be as explicit with the advice. Nor are widespread audits
expected of Cuba travelers once they return to the U.S., said Van
Leeuwen, who led a JetBlue study of its planned Cuba service. "We've
talked to several firms that specialize in Cuba and pretty much across
the board have heard that the enforcement is highly contingent on the
political climate, and more specifically the presidential
administration," he said. Several travelers to Cuba were fined for
embargo violations during U.S. President George W. Bush's administration
but "under the Obama administration everyone I've talked to said that
hasn't occurred," Van Leeuwen said. If Republican presidential candidate
Donald Trump wins in November, those records may come in handy, whereas
a Hillary Clinton administration is unlikely to change course on Cuban
Over time, a jaunt to Cuba will become less onerous in terms of
navigating the rules, much like Americans have mastered the intricacies
of traveling to China, said Eduardo Marcos, American Airlines's managing
director of alliances and partnerships. "What we're trying to do here is
strike a balance between ensuring all of our customers comply with
regulations and making the customer experience as seamless as possible,"
he said."People are going to get used to it. But it's going to take
months, if not years, to get to that point."
Source: Cuba's the hot new destination —if you can satisfy all the rules
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