Written by CREST Program Manager, Ellen Rugh

As a global nonprofit, nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) has been a leading voice on sustainable travel to Cuba since the United States reformed its Cuba travel regulations in 2016. While much has changed since our first trip to the island, we remain in the vanguard of promoting responsible policies and practices for Cuba’s tourism industry.

A small group of tourists gather around a guide as she describes their surroundings.
CREST Charter Club Trip to Cuba

What is CREST’s Stance on Cuban Travel & Tourism? 

Our work in Cuba focuses on strengthening small-scale, household-based tourism on the island, mitigating the impacts of climate change on the burgeoning tourism sector, and advocating for legal US travel to the island. CREST believes that educational and people-to-people exchanges to Cuba are important for fostering cross-cultural understanding and can be transformational both for everyday Cubans and for American travelers.

We also believe that US travel to Cuba for the purposes of professional exchanges is pivotal to foster dialogue and regional cooperation, particularly as the tourism industry and its host communities continue to confront the worsening effects of climate change and biodiversity conservation.

What Have We Done to Support This?

Advocating for legal US travel to Cuba in 2016

  • Coordinated an advocacy group comprised of U.S. tour operators, NGOs, and Cuba experts
  • Hosted three CREST Charter Club trips to Cuba to offer cross-cultural exchanges between U.S. travelers and Cuban people while building key partnerships with academic and civil society professionals
  • Distributed surveys to U.S. tour operators and survey providers offering trips to Cuba to better understand how policy changes impact US travel to the island
  • Sent a letter to the State Department and circulated petitions to tour operators and educational travel companies, asking the Department at the time to re-staff the embassy and lower Cuba’s travel advisory from a 3 (“reconsider travel”) to at least a 2 (“exercise increased caution”)
  • Sent a letter to the State Department and circulated petitions to tour operators and educational travel companies, asking the urge the National Security Council, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and the Department of State to maintain the critical people-to-people and educational exchange programs
  • Held a press conference aboard the 130-foot schooner the Harvey Gamage, a tall ship taking five “gap year,” or between high school and college, students and a crew of 10 to Cienfuegos, Cuba, for ecological studies and people-to-people exchanges
  • Hosted a press briefing and press trip on U.S. travel to Cuba, which was designed to explore the real impact of the U.S. policy changes toward Cuba, including the elimination of people-to-people travel to the island
  • Co-sponsored a webinar on the future of US travel to Cuba in conjunction with the Cuba/US People to People Partnership, created by the Fund for Reconciliation & Development. Building off the valuable dialogue during this webinar, a month later a follow-up meeting was organized for additional public comment.

Supporting small-scale, household-based tourism and support climate-change solutions

  • Released Cruise Tourism in the Caribbean: Selling Sunshine(Routledge Press, 2019) and Por el Mar de las Antillas: 50 Anos de Turismo de Cruceros en el Caribe (Ediciones Temas, 2018) two books released in English and Spanish, respectively, which share lessons learned from Caribbean cruise tourism for Cuba and other destinations
  • Sponsored three sustainable tourism conferences at universities in the provinces of Holguín and Pinar del Rio, bringing international tourism experts from throughout the Americas to share their insights on climate change, community-based tourism, agritourism, and more
  • Released Turismo de Pequeña Escala: Una Mirada desde Cuba y Costa Rica a Spanish language eBook on small-scale non-state tourism in Cuba, available for free, public use on the CREST website. Building on the information and ideas that emerged from our workshops, the eBook converts technical information and academic research into an easily understandable publication.
  • Organized and hosted a South-South study tour to Costa Rica for six Cubans from Pinar del Rio province, as a way to engage in two-way dialogue and learning exchange around issues, and successes, that the countries have faced in developing its tourism sector to be both economically successful and environmentally and socially responsible
The South-South Study Tour posing for the camera.
South-South Study Tour to Costa Rica

What is Happening with Cuban Travel & Tourism now?

If a rollercoaster of US policy changes over recent years and the impending threats of global climate change and biodiversity loss were not already enough for Cuban tourism to face, 2020 challenged the industry with another threat: the COVID-19 crisis.

Despite policy shifts and border closures that altered our travel plans over the past year,  our mission in Cuba continues. Building on our work in the Caribbean and our series of publications focused on coastal and marine tourism and climate change, we have spent the year conducting critical research surrounding the impacts of COVID-19 and climate change on the Cuban tourism sector, thanks to the generous support of the Christopher Reynolds Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The findings, which will coalesce into a free eBook to be released in late summer, will explore COVID-19 recovery through a series of scenario analyses and will hypothesize future outlooks for specific subsectors of the Cuban tourism industry, such as cruise tourism and accommodations. The report will draw thoughtful conclusions about what this future recovery might imply for combatting our ongoing climate crisis and make the case for the travel industry, policymakers, and civil society to engage in the urgent mobilization against climate change.

As vaccinations increase in availability and borders open up for travel, we will continue to advocate for US travel policies that will allow everyday individuals and professional organizations to foster cross-cultural understanding and cooperation. And today, while legal US travel to Cuba is still indeed possible, we know that can certainly be confusing.

As part of our efforts to dispel this confusion, CREST has put together a repository of current news and resources and a timeline of US policy towards travel to Cuba for travelers and tour operators wanting to stay up-to-date on the most recent travel regulations and policy changes. We also encourage those who are eager to uncover Cuba’s beauty (but unsure where to begin) to reach out to responsible tour operators like Holbrook Travel, Academic Travel Abroad, and Cuba Educational Travel

How to Get Involved

In the spirit of fostering dialogue and cooperation among organizations and individuals in Cuba, the US, and across the Greater Caribbean, CREST encourages all to reach out and discuss opportunities for involvement and collaboration with our work. For more information on the CREST’s work in Cuba, contact CREST Program Manager Ellen Rugh.

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