In November 2018, members of the CREST-led coalition of tour operators and Cuba experts met with State Department officials to express our concerns regarding the expansion of the Department’s Cuba Restricted List and to share our expertise on educational and people-to-people travel to Cuba and the vital support it provides to small-scale Cuban entrepreneurs. In December, CREST and coalition members sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton urging the administration not to impose new OFAC restrictions on travel to Cuba that would reduce the revenue lawful travelers from the U.S. provide to Cuba’s emergent household businesses. Read the letter here, which was delivered to Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton on December 17.
In August 2018, the State Department updated its Cuba travel advisory from “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” to “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.” This move was applauded by the CREST-led coalition of tour operators, educational travel companies, NGOs, and Cuba experts that have seen educational exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba deeply hurt by the Department’s level 3 classification.
Ahead of the decision, CREST sent a letter to the State Department advocating for this change to Cuba’s travel advisory, arguing that the “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” rating was unwarranted and providing research and data points to support the coalition’s recommendation. With its new level 2 travel advisory rating, Cuba is now in the same category as most of Europe.
On August 29, members of the coalition attended a CREST-organized meeting at the State Department to express thanks for the positive changes being made, learn more about the decision to change Cuba’s travel advisory, and share the coalition’s recommendations for further steps to take on U.S. travel to Cuba.
As the March 4, 2018, deadline for the U.S. State Department to decide whether or not to re-staff the U.S. Embassy in Havana loomed, CREST circulated a petition to tour operators and educational travel companies, asking the department to both re-staff the embassy and lower Cuba’s travel advisory from a 3, or “reconsider travel,” to at least a 2, or “exercise increased caution.” A press release about the petition, posted March 1, shared that 33 groups and businesses had signed the petition, and as news about it circulated, the number grew to 39.
Unfortunately, the State Department announced a day later, March 2, that it would not re-staff the U.S. Embassy, but instead change its staffing plan by operating “with the minimum personnel necessary to perform core diplomatic and consular functions.” CREST’s executive director, Martha Honey, expressed her disappointment in an NBC News article, suggesting, however, that a “new normal” at the embassy might open the door for lowering the advisory rating.
On Feb. 14, 2018, CREST released results from a tour-operator survey it had conducted two weeks prior, concluding, primarily, that Cuba is safe for travel while recent U.S. policies toward Cuba have negatively impacted U.S. travel to the island country. Check out the press release announcing the results as well as key findings from the survey.
The survey was sent to 156 tour operators and received 42 responses, a healthy 27-percent rate. Key findings including the following:
The survey results, sent to 1,200 members of the press, will be used to further make the case that travel to Cuba is both safe and legal, despite misleading policies recently enacted by the U.S. government. It will also aid the coalition in continuing to petition the U.S. State Department to drop the level 3, or "reconsider travel," advisory from Cuba and lower it to 2, for "exercise increased caution."
In response to a new travel-advisory system announced by the U.S. State Department Jan. 10, 2018, the coalition met two days later with department officials to protest Cuba’s rating and suggest ways in which the explanation for the rating can be altered, so as not to discourage people from traveling to Cuba.
The new rating for Cuba is a 3, or “reconsider travel,” the second-highest rating on a scale which ranges from 1, for “exercise normal precautions,” to 4, for “do not travel.” While some in the press have interpreted Cuba’s new rating as a “softening” of Cuba travel advisories, the State Department officials made clear that levels 3 and 4 ratings are the equivalent of what used to be known as a Travel Warning. Cuba was given a Travel Warning this past September, after a series of health incidents affecting 24 U.S. Embassy employees in Havana were reported.
Since then, the coalition has argued that the warning, and now the level 3 rating, is unjustified, given that no similar health problems have been reported by more than 4 million civilians who traveled to Cuba from all parts of the world in 2017.
For these and other reasons, the nine members of the coalition who met with State Department officials followed up, a week later, with a formal letter to the department, which you can read in full here.
First and foremost in the letter is this statement:
“We strongly disagree with the State Department’s decision to rate Cuba at Level 3: Reconsider Travel. We believe this rating is unwarranted given events that have taken place in Cuba. While we remain concerned that U.S. Embassy employees in Havana were stricken with health ailments, there are no confirmed cases of similar ailments among the more than 4 million civilian visitors to Cuba in 2017. And these health incidents occurred within Havana only. In addition, compared with most countries rated 3, and many rated 2, Cuba is far safer and has better health care, a far lower crime rate, and no armed conflict or civil unrest. We believe, based on State Department criteria, that Cuba should instead be rated 2.”
A press conference was held 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. The press conference took place on Oct. 25, 2017, at the Capital Yacht Club in Washington, D.C. The ship, owned and operated by the educational company Ocean Passages, had been docked in Washington for a week, as the students, ages 18 to 24, met with a dozen members of Congress on Capitol Hill.
For a full account of the conference, during which speakers shared the mission of the trip as well as the challenges of travel to Cuba in the current political climate, check out the press release issued by Ocean Passages and CREST.
Half a dozen reporters were present, many from Spanish-speaking press agencies. Below are links to several reports.