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Trump administration halts cruises to Cuba

Published:Thursday | June 6, 2019 | 12:18 AM
Tourists who have just disembarked from a cruise liner, tour the city aboard a vintage American convertible, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, June 4, 2019.
Tourists who have just disembarked from a cruise liner, tour the city aboard a vintage American convertible, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, June 4, 2019.

The Trump administration on Tuesday ended the most popular forms of US travel to Cuba, banning cruise ships and a heavily used category of educational travel in an attempt to cut off cash to the island’s communist government.

Cruise travel from the United States to Cuba began in May 2016 during President Barack Obama’s opening with the island. It has become the most popular form of US leisure travel to the island, bringing 142,721 people in the first four months of the year, a more than 300 per cent increase over the same period last year. For travellers confused about the thicket of federal regulations governing travel to Cuba, cruises offered a simple, one-stop, guaranteed legal way to travel.

That now appears to be over.

“Cruise ships as well as recreational and pleasure vessels are prohibited from departing the US on temporary sojourn to Cuba effective tomorrow,” the US Commerce Department said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The new restrictions are part of a broader effort by the administration of Donald Trump to roll back the Obama-era efforts to restore normal relations between the United States and Cuba, which drew sharp criticism from the more hardline elements of the Cuban-American community and their allies in Congress.

Treasury said the sanctions were to take effect Wednesday, June 5, after they are published in the Federal Register.

US national security adviser John Bolton, who declared Cuba part of a ‘troika of tyranny’ along with Nicaragua and Venezuela as he outlined plans for sanctions in November, said the new policy is intended to deny the Cuban government a vital source of revenue.

“We will continue to take actions to restrict the Cuban regime’s access to US dollars,” Bolton said on Twitter.

The Cuban government imposed food rationing last month as a result of tightened US sanctions and a drop in subsidised oil and other aid from Venezuela. For the Cuban government, cruise travel generated many millions of dollars a year in docking fees and payments for onshore excursions, although those figures were never made public. Cuba also has become the most-requested destination for many South Florida-based cruise lines.

Cruise companies appeared to be caught off guard, with several, including Norwegian Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean, urging ticketed passengers to be patient in response to queries on social media.

Finally, more than nine hours after the Treasury announcement, Royal Caribbean said it was cancelling the Cuba stops on its June 5 and 6 cruises and would issue further guidance on future trips as soon as it was practical.

“We expect to know more within the next 24 hours and will communicate any changes as soon as we are able. In the meantime, we are adjusting the itineraries of our June 5 and June 6 sailings, which will no longer stop in Cuba. We are communicating with our guests about those changes,” Royal Caribbean said in a notice posted to its website.

Cruise lines carrying passengers booked before Tuesday had been hoping that they could request specific federal permits to complete their trips to Cuba, said Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based attorney who represents Carnival and three other major cruise lines.

Norwegian Cruise Line said in a statement that it was scrutinising the new rules and consulting with lawyers and trade experts.