Cuba’s crippled economy expects a massive boost as its just got easier for Americans to fly there. On 1 June the US Department of Transportation lifted civil aviation restrictions on flights between the US and Cuba established during the Trump administration. Those restrictions had prevented US commercial and chartered flights from flying to Cuban cities other than Havana.
In practice, though, how easy it will be to travel to Cuba for a leisure trip is questionable. For Americans, the past decade has seen wide swings in US foreign policy that have impacted travel rules.
Despite expecting more American tourism revenue, it will take a long time to recover. Cuba´s ailing economy has begun to recover in some sectors after two years of pandemic-induced contraction but soaring global prices for food and fuel require “audacious” measures to tame inflation, economy minister Alejandro Gil told Cuban lawmakers last month.
Gil said Cuba saw a 38 percent increase in exports in the first quarter, boosted by the rising price of nickel, a top mineral export. But the price Cuba paid for imported goods jumped by nearly $700 million in the first quarter, outpacing the country´s modest gains in exports, a predicament Gil attributed to “imported inflation” driven by fast-rising prices for such products as fuel, corn for feeding livestock and wheat.
US sanctions and soaring food and fuel prices, in part due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have put Cuba´s tepid recovery at risk and threaten to worsen shortages already forcing citizens to line up for food, medicine and other basic goods.
The undulating fortunes of the economy started when President Barack Obama began relaxing rules for to travel in Cuba in 2011. Cuba quickly became a hot stopover on sailings that offered onshore excursions that ostensibly fell into the “people-to-people” category. While the largest cruise lines docked in Havana, a number of smaller, upscale cruise operators created more Cuba-centric itineraries making calls on smaller cities. By 2018, more than a dozen cruise lines were bringing roughly 800,000 passengers to Cuba annually.
In 2019, the Trump administration drastically rolled back leisure travel to Cuba by banning commercial and chartered flights from the US to Cuban cities other than Havana. US cruise ships were prohibited from stopping in Cuba and the “people-to-people” travel category was eliminated.
Blocking “people-to-people” trips meant that, while Americans could legally fly into Havana, they had to find another category — family visits, professional trips, religious or humanitarian work or, what became the most popular option, a category called “support for the Cuban people.” For the latter, travellers need to demonstrate that their plans include activities like meeting with local business owners, visiting museums or galleries, and eating at locally owned restaurants and markets.
Now the Biden administration is trying to swing the pendulum back. Two weeks ago, officials announced initial steps to reopen limited leisure travel to Cuba.