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Travel industry sticking with trips to Cuba from US

FILE - In this June 17, 2017 file photo, a tour bus appears in front of the Capitolio in Havana, Cuba..Tour companies and others in the travel industry say they will continue taking Americans to Cuba despite a dramatic safety warning issued Friday by the U.S. State Department. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)
September 29, 2017 - 12:24 PM

MIAMI - Tour companies, airlines, cruises and others in the travel industry say they will continue taking Americans to Cuba despite a dramatic safety warning issued Friday by the U.S. State Department.

"We continue to believe that Cuba is a safe destination for our travellers, and we will be running our tours until our assessment changes," said Greg Geronemus, CEO of SmarTours. "There has long been significant political tension between the U.S. and Cuban governments, but the experience that our travellers have had on the ground with the Cuban people has been nothing short of amazing. We have no reason to expect that these experiences will not continue."

Travel providers point out that there are no reports of American travellers having been harmed by the mysterious sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats and other officials, and that travel to Cuba by Americans remains legal under existing regulations.

Collin Laverty of Cuba Educational Travel noted that the U.S. State Department has issued numerous alerts and advisories against travel by Americans to places like Mexico and Europe because of crime, terrorism and other dangers. In contrast, in Cuba, "they have no evidence to indicate that U.S. travellers at risk during their visits to Cuba." He also called the warning "absolutely unnecessary and counterproductive."

The Trump Administration said earlier this year that it planned to issue new rules limiting travel by Americans to Cuba but it has not yet done so.

U.S. airlines continue to offer regular flights to Cuba, cruises continue to make stops there, Airbnb has a thriving rental business in Cuba and tour companies are still offering trips.

American Airlines is among a number of carriers declining to refund or waive change fees for Cuba flights despite the warning Friday. Travellers with tickets to Cuba are being treated like any travellers wishing to make changes: They must call the airline's reservations line to see what the options are, based on whether they bought a refundable or non-refundable ticket, said American spokesman Matt Miller.

"It is still legal to travel to Cuba," reiterated Greg Buzulencia, CEO of ViaHero, which creates personal itineraries for Americans visiting Cuba. "I don't have any insight on the claimed attacks on U.S. diplomats, but there have been no such attacks on US travellers." He said they'd had no cancellations from travellers.

John West made plans months ago to go to Cuba next week with a group of 12 friends from Washington D.C. and New York. Now they want to cancel. West said as of midday Friday, they couldn't get refunds on their United flights or the Airbnb house they rented in Havana. "We're kind of stuck in a pickle," West said. "We sent them articles stating that diplomats are getting attacked by this sonic whatever it is. ... All these issues arising from the hurricane and the attacks on the diplomats — it's just not safe for us to go."

Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said that "consistent with U.S. law, our operations in Cuba will continue. ... Guests from the United States who have previously booked a trip to Cuba and wish to cancel their travel to Cuba can contact Airbnb to have their Airbnb reservation cost refunded under our extenuating circumstances policy."

United spokesman Frank Benenati said the airline's Cuba flights are operating "normally."

In Friday's travel warning, the State Department said some of the unexplained physical effects have occurred in Cuban hotels, and that while American tourists aren't known to have been hurt they could be exposed if they travel to Cuba. Tourism is a critical component of Cuba's economy.

Carlos Valderrama, owner of Cuba Travel Group, a Miami-based agency that sells trips for cultural tours and eco-tourism, said he's already booked a third fewer trips this year than last because of President Donald Trump's June announcement that restrictions were forthcoming on travel to Cuba. As for Friday's warning, Valderrama said, "It was already very difficult to explain to Americans who want to travel to Cuba the ways in which they can do it correctly. This will only scare them more. But it's doesn't reflect the reality of (what it's) like to travel to Cuba."

Royal Caribbean spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez said that because the incidents referenced in the warning took place in hotels and diplomatic residences, "we do not feel that they pose a risk to our cruise passengers." A Carnival cruise spokeswoman said it was "evaluating" the warning.


Beth Harpaz reported from New York. Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2017
The Associated Press

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