by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 20, 2019
Travel to Cuba is legal for Americans, and group business is exploding. That was the message delivered during a recent media-only conference call hosted by the Center for Responsible Travel, a Washington, D.C.-based policy-oriented research organization, and aimed at dispelling any concerns the Trump administration's policies might have raised on travel to the island.
 
In June 2017, President Trump announced new restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, and five months later the State Department issued a Cuba Restricted List, which placed more than 80 hotels off-limits to American visitors, as well as dozens of companies the U.S. says are tied to Cuba's military, intelligence or security services. The list is updated annually.
 
By law, travel to Cuba is still generally limited to specific authorized categories, such as educational activity and humanitarian projects. While the Obama administration had eased up on those restrictions with fewer questions asked of U.S. travelers for their reason for visiting the island, the Trump Administration said more documentation would be required of travelers.
 
According to Bob Muse, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who specializes in travel to Cuba, despite the fallout of confusion and concern surrounding the administration's newer travel policies, little is actually different. "In truth, the legal aspect of travel to Cuba is virtually unchanged," said Muse during the conference call. "Yes, you need a visa to go, and travel has to be in groups, rather than individually directed. But there is little reason to believe that the Trump administration will interfere much with U.S. travel to Cuba."
 
Collin Laverty, founder and president of Havana-based Cuba Educational Travel and a senior partner of consultancy firm Havana Strategies, said group demand from U.S. companies has been steadily growing, after having dipped by 25 percent in the months following the announcement of the new travel policies and the government's elevated travel advisory following a mysterious illness suffered by some diplomatic personnel stationed in Havana.
 
Among the companies placing group business in 2018 with Cuba Educational Travel's Havana Live division, which handles MICE business, were Netflix, Spotify and General Electric. "We have been focusing our outreach on the MICE market, particularly high-end corporate travel, and that's where we are seeing tremendous growth," reported Laverty. And, with Havana celebrating its 500th anniversary in 2019 with a number of yearlong cultural celebrations, he expects to see even more interest from groups. "I can't tell you how many times we have heard a client say, 'We have been wanting to go to Cuba forever, and we finally feel it's ready.'"
 
Despite the Trump Administration's hardline approach, hotel investment in Cuba is robust. Marriott International (https://www.marriott.com), which has the Four Points by Sheraton Havana in the city's Miramar section, is looking to add more product. The company has its eyes on the historic Hotel Inglaterra, which dates to 1875 and sits on the fringe of Old Havana, and Marriott is said to be looking for other opportunities across the island.
 
In 2018, a number of new hotels opened their doors, including the 321-room Iberostar Grand Packard in Old Havana, and the 802-room Paradisus Los Cayos in Cayo Santa Maria on Cuba's north-central coast, offering 10,000 square feet of meeting space. Paris-based AccorHotels said it will open the 250-room SO/Havana Paseo del Prado in 2020 in Havana. It will be the brand's first entry into the Americas region.