Last updated: 03:04 PM ET, Fri June 05 2015

Tour Operators Unflinching Following House Vote Against Opening Cuban Travel

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | June 05, 2015

Tour Operators Unflinching Following House Vote Against Opening Cuban Travel

Photo by David Cogswell

There are many possible reactions to the House of Representatives passing a bill that would reverse President Obama’s loosening of Cuba travel restrictions last December, but one reaction that is highly unlikely among tour operators is surprise.

Cuba tour operators barely batted an eye when the House passed a transportation funding bill that included an amendment that would practically reverse Cuban relations to what they were before Obama issued an executive order last December that made travel to Cuba easier.

The battle over Cuba is just politics as usual, and it goes on and on.

“I am not surprised that the amendment was introduced,” said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, “but I don’t believe there’s any chance today of rolling back the tidal wave that President Obama unleashed last January. Considering that the majority of American citizens, including those among Cuban-Americans living in South Florida, are in favor of restoring relations with Cuba, it will be hard, even as a run up to the 2016 election, to push through legislation that takes us backward.”

Though they may not have been surprised, tour operators whose businesses are affected by the restrictions on travel to Cuba, are not pleased.

“It is a shame that certain members of Congress have taken a negative view, which appears to be political positioning in any case, and voted as they have,” said John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours. “Mayflower Tours believes in 'open borders' and plans no change in its plans to bring our travelers to Cuba under the people to people banner.”

Cuba has been a front-burner issue for years for the U.S. Tour Operators Association, which stridently advocates freedom for Americans to travel wherever they want. The latest political maneuver regarding Cuba elicited no surprise in the USTOA camp.

“We anticipate the political maneuvering to continue on this highly charged issue,” said Terry Dale, president of USTOA. “USTOA’s fourth Congressional Caucus is coming up June 17-18 in D.C. and Cuba will be front and center on our list of priorities as we head to the Hill for meetings. We will be supporting the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (H.R. 664) as well as the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act (S. 491).”

Tour operators had been working through the intense bureaucratic tangles of travel to Cuba long before Obama’s loosening of restrictions last December. So returning to the previous regimen of voluminous filings, should they have to do it, would not be critical to their operations. Nevertheless, it is a bureaucratic headache they do not welcome.

“This is just the nature of the politics surrounding Cuba,” said Steve Cox, International Expeditions’ executive director. “Everyone expected the House vote to go this way. In the event that Obama doesn’t veto as promised, I think any ‘clamping back down’ is only going to impact the independent travel options that have popped up (booking charter flights online, etc.) rather than authorized people-to-people groups which have been able to operate for several years. International Expeditions still holds a specific license for people-to-people travel issued by OFAC (The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control), so our travel plans and guests would certainly not be impacted.”

Tour operators, especially in the Cuba market, are realists. They know how the game is played.

Bob Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts, summed it up succinctly.

“Politics...,” he said, “and we'll see more of it as electioneering mounts. We're operating and will continue as guided by the Treasury Department.”

If the Senate passes the same measure and the President signs it, it “would limit flights and roll back other provisions,” said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba. “But Obama’s veto threat is real. There are other provisions in the bill that have nothing to do with Cuba that they have differences over. In my opinion it's the House’s way to force negotiations on other matters.”

For tour operators working under the people to people regulations of the U.S. Treasury Department, the law would require a return to much more laborious bureaucratic filing requirements. But it will not prevent them from operating.

 “We are disappointed with the news, as it is a setback for many,” said Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette. “We believe in the freedom to travel, which includes open borders to Cuba that would facilitate cultural interactions and mutual tourism and economic benefits.

“We have a people to people license already with an approved itinerary, so there is no immediate effect on us. But it creates unnecessary obstacles for Americans and for operators who want to add Cuba to their portfolio of product. Creating barriers hurts airlines and tourism in general, which adversely affects our U.S. economy.”

“We do hope that that Americans reach out to their Senators and Congressman to express their desire for the freedom to travel. It is a personal decision and not one that should be regulated by a 50-year-old outdated law."

Ironically, the attempt to block travel to Cuba will probably increase demand by heightening the urgency and giving weight to the old argument, “Go while you can because you never know when the doors will be closed again.” Since Obama’s announcement last December, demand for Cuba has skyrocketed from what was already robust.

“On the business front,” said Twidale, “there is a sense of urgency to encourage travelers to visit Cuba now, since no one can predict the direction this decision will take, especially in an upcoming election year."

In one sense, tour operators are in a win-win situation, because the people to people regulations make it necessary for tourists to work with qualified tour operators. But on principle, as well as for ease of operations, they want to see the regulations cut back further, not re-implemented.

“Globus and Cosmos are committed to empowering travelers with discovery of the world, and our Cuba People-to-People programs are a testament to that,” said Pam Hoffee, vice president of product and operations for the Globus family of brands. “We continue to monitor the situation regarding licensing for travel under these programs and can assure travelers that we offer a safe and legal way to experience the people and culture of Cuba today.”

“The overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of improving relations with Cuba,” said Katharine Bonner, senior vice president of Tauck, “and we’d hate to see the recent easing of travel restrictions overturned. That said, we’ve been very successful in Cuba since our launch there in 2012, under the initial regulations in place at the time, and since the President’s announcement in December. While we’re confident we’ll continue to be successful in Cuba, even under the older regulations, it would be a shame to see the recent progress reversed.”

Few believe that efforts to roll back the tide on travel to Cuba will ultimately be successful.

“For travel to Cuba, the genie is out of the bottle,” said Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours. “They can stop the U.S. traffic, but can’t touch the Cuban Americans that still are the vast majority of those traveling. It is too politically risky to do so.”

Until Obama signs the bill into law, if he does so, no change will be required.

“We can’t take any action based on speculation," said Paldi. “We continue our very successful operation to Cuba, especially with the customized FIT and group departures. Ya’lla tours was there during the Bush times when he almost brought travel to Cuba to a complete stop. We kept sending legal travel to the island and I’m sure that we’ll continue to do so if and when the regulations change.

“The real issue,” said Paldi, “is what will the Cubans do, as the current demand from the USA and other countries is way over any capacity that the Cubans can handle. With an increase of almost 60 percent and an unchanged infrastructure, with price increases that are way beyond any logic and reality, this is more of an immediate worry.”

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