You may have recently read that Carnival has been granted permission by the U.S. Government to cruise to Cuba from Miami. Carnival expects Cuba to quickly grant permission as well. While the U.S. government has strict rules about travel to Cuba, no other country does. Cuba is a popular destination for Europeans with many countries having direct flights. Cruises are also becoming more popular. The Cuban Transportation Ministry recently reported that cruise ships made 24 port calls in 2012, increasing to 139 in 2014, and up to the end of May 2015 there have been 174 port calls. That is without any ships sailing from U.S. ports. MSC, the world’s largest privately own cruise company, will home port the MSC Opera from December 22 until April 12, 2016 in Cuba.
Overall, the cruise industry in Cuba is booming and the addition of American ported ships will accelerate the growth. But there is a catch – Cuba has been under a U.S. Trade embargo for the last 50 years. Last December, The leaders of the U.S. and Cuba announced the resumption of diplomatic ties. Last week, the U.S. Embassy was reopened. In January, the White House announced modifications on the process for Americans to legally go to Cuba. Before this decision in January, it was difficult to get permission to go to Cuba and what you were permitted to spend was greatly restricted. You were not even allowed to stay in a hotel as it would enrich the Cuba government. Below is the new policy for travel to Cuba found on the State Departments website, and the one Carnival will be working with:
General & Specific Licenses for Travel: The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses within the 12 categories of authorized travel for many travel-related transactions to, from, or within Cuba that previously required a specific license (i.e., an application and a case-by-case determination). Travel-related transactions are permitted by general license for certain travel related to the following activities, subject to criteria and conditions in each general license: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions. No further permission from OFAC is required to engage in transactions covered by a general license.
To sum all of that up, you cannot go as a tourist but it is okay to go for “people to people” or humanitarian projects. Recently, Carnival announced a new cruise line Fathom, a smaller ship that will focus on volunteer efforts (which just happens to fit the rules for a license to travel to Cuba). The new rules mean that the cruise line can apply for the licenses and all you have to do is sign a statement that you are going to support the Cuban people. A cruise to Cuba is not for tourism and your time will be restricted.
Back to the current situation- Politics. The House bill for the Department of Transportation spending passed the first week of June. It contained a section returning the Cuban Travel rules back to the way they were. The White House said they will veto the bill and any other spending bill until the section is removed. So the issue has the potential of shutting down the government again. There has been a flurry of other bills, some supporting the changes and others enforcing the current rules.
It is estimated that each year about 500,000 Americans illegally visit Cuba, a sign that many do not believe in the current rules. The political issues surrounding travel will take time to resolve. If you are interested in one of these cruises, pay close attention to the details before making a commitment.