Just when it seemed that Cuba was on track to become something of a routine destination for Americans, tensions and tactics reminiscent of the Cold War have once again complicated travel to the Communist island.
In a strongly worded statement issued on Friday, the State Department warned Americans “not to travel to Cuba” after news of a bizarre series of sonic attacks that have affected American and Canadian diplomats based there in recent months. The attacks caused symptoms that include brain injuries, hearing loss, fatigue and headaches.
Who is behind the attacks and how they are carried out remains unclear. The Cuban government denies responsibility and has allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into it.
Still, the State Department warned that ordinary Americans could become victims and that, given the American government’s decision to reduce its presence in Cuba, there would be fewer embassy staff to help American citizens who ran into trouble.
“Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba,” the State Department said in a statement
But some travel organizers on Friday said that the State Department’s advisory exaggerated the dangers posed by the sonic attacks, which are not known to have affected any ordinary travelers.
Colin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which has organized student and tour groups to the island for several years, said the advisory was unwarranted.
“The U.S. government has a responsibility to make clear to U.S. travelers that Cuba continues to be safe, that these are isolated incidents and there is no risk to Americans traveling to Cuba,” Mr. Laverty said. He fears that between the news of the sonic attacks and the subsequent travel warning “people are going to think twice about coming,” he added.
American travel to Cuba, which boomed after a détente between the two countries in late 2014, was already beginning to suffer after President Donald Trump in June announced a more restrictive policy toward the government of Raúl Castro.
The new rules turned the clock back to the days before the 2014 détente, restricting American travel to Cuba in the “people-to-people” category to organized groups, making visits more costly and choreographed. The restrictions will also put some hotels and restaurants run by the Cuban military off limits.
Since then, fewer individuals have been visiting the island, travel representatives said, though interest from large groups has remained about the same. Even before the sonic attacks, travel to Cuba could be confusing. Regulations shift back and forth, depending on who is in the White House. Michael Sykes, president of Cuba Cultural Travel, said many travelers were “misinterpreting” the State Department warning to mean that Cuba was prohibited or that they would not be able to get a visa.
Here are some answers to common questions about how to travel to Cuba now:
Can Americans still travel to Cuba?
Yes. The State Department issues advisories about travel to different countries all the time. While citizens should always take warnings on board and read them in detail, they are not binding. The advisory is likely to be updated once the mystery behind the sonic attacks is solved.
What if I need help when I am in Cuba?
The State Department has said that, because of a reduction in personnel in Havana, it will be able to help Americans only in emergencies. The government provides emergency telephone numbers and information here.
Will damage from Hurricane Irma affect my trip?
It should not. While parts of Cuba were hit hard by the storm, including tourist areas like the northern keys and Varadero, the areas generally visited by Americans were not. And although Havana was badly flooded, tourist infrastructure is back to normal.
What about the Trump Administration’s new restrictions?
Under a new policy announced in June, individual travel to Cuba by Americans will become more restricted. People-to-people trips, which are by far the most popular mode of American travel to Cuba, must be undertaken with an organization that puts together full-time programs for travelers, such as Smithsonian Journeys, Cuba Cultural Travel and the Center for Cuban Studies.
The regulations have yet to be published, but a fact sheet published by the Treasury Department in July indicates that individual travel will still be allowed within 12 categories, including humanitarian and religious travel; family visits; journalistic activity; professional research; and participation in public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions.
Those traveling in these categories will still be able to book a flight and reserve a room online and they will not be required to apply for a specific license.
What if I have already booked my trip?
According to the Treasury Department, travelers who have already booked part of their journey, even if it is an individual people-to-people trip, may go ahead. If the trip that they have booked involves transactions with military-run hotel groups or restaurants, that is also permitted, the Treasury said.
Where can U.S. citizens stay?
The new directive prohibits transactions with companies controlled by the military, which runs large swaths of the hotel and tourism sector. The Treasury Department has yet to publish a list of properties that are off limits, but travel groups will likely be limited to those run by civilian tour organizations, such as Gran Caribe and Cubanacan. Americans traveling independently may still book a room in a private house or through Airbnb.
Now, though, visitors may have another concern: The Associated Press has reported that a diplomat staying in the Hotel NH Capri, where U.S. officials sometimes stay, was targeted by a sonic attack. It is not clear if this was the only attack in a hotel, but the incident may put some travelers off.
Could you take a cruise instead?
You could. Carnival and Oceania Cruises offer cruises to Cuba departing from Miami. Other cruise companies offering journeys to Cuba from American ports include Pearl Sea Cruises and a French company, Ponant.
Will anybody keep tabs on what Americans do in Cuba?
Over the past two years, nobody seems to have been keeping tabs on which Americans go to Cuba or what they do there, even though senior officials at the Treasury and Commerce Departments said they took travel restrictions seriously.
Now, the Trump administration is directing the Treasury Department to strictly enforce the law regarding travel to Cuba, including routine audits.