Tourists take pictures in Havana, Cuba
Tourists take pictures in Havana, Cuba June 13, 2017. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Cubans fret new Trump policy will dampen tourism boom

HAVANA — Edi Coba says he is not sure his new rooftop bar in the heart of Old Havana that buzzes at night with hip, tattooed young Americans will survive if U.S. President Donald Trump tightens restrictions on travel to Communist-run Cuba.

The bar, which serves cocktails with a view over the capital while DJs spin electronic sets, was created in part to cater to a tourist boom in the wake of the U.S.-Cuban detente. Now, some two thirds of its clientele are Americans.

“My friends and I have invested a lot in the possibility of the American public coming, so yes I’m worried,” said Coba, 27, echoing the view of many Cubans working in the relatively lucrative tourism sector.

“This bar is quite progressive. It has a modern style and we generally have a lot of Americans.”

Women look out from balconies in Havana.

Women look out from balconies in Havana. (REUTERS/Stringer)

Trump is expected to announce a new Cuba policy on Friday likely to tighten some rules on travel and trade, rolling back parts of former President Barack Obama’s opening toward the island, U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

Cuban state news outlets have barely covered such reports but they have trickled through via illegal satellite television and conversations with relatives abroad. Earlier on Tuesday, state-run Radio Reloj declared: “Here, we are all serene.”

“From Eisenhower to Trump, there has never been a North American government looking at Havana with friendship,” the broadcaster said. “For this reason, neither announcements nor new measures will rob us our sleep.”

Many Cubans who have not felt much impact from the detente on their daily lives agree, and feel resigned. After all, the damaging U.S. trade embargo remains in place and they are struggling to get by as the economy wrestles with falling exports and a decline in oil shipments from key ally Venezuela.

But for those in the tourism industry, that has benefited tangibly from a threefold increase in U.S. visitors in the past two years, it is a different story.

A woman has a drink in a bar in Havana, Cuba June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

A woman has a drink in a bar in Havana, (REUTERS/Stringer)

Americans now make up some 7 percent of total visits – 15 percent including Cuban Americans – and a much larger proportion in Havana given many of Cuba’s tourists are Canadians on package trips who head directly to the beach resorts.

“Some 85 percent of our clients are Americans and they are the ones who consume most and pay the best,” said Yuri Barroso, doing promotion for a restaurant on Plaza Vieja, a square surrounded by elegantly restored colonial buildings.

Barroso said that if the number of U.S. tourists were to fall again, it would cause “pain for many Cubans” who like him worked in the tourism sector and support their family.

The United States still officially prohibits its citizens from visiting Cuba as tourists.

A bicycle taxi in Havana.

A bicycle taxi in Havana. (REUTERS/Stringer)

However, travel between the two countries is easier now than it has been in more than half a century thanks to a “general license”, which allows travelers to claim they are visiting family or engaging in business, cultural, religious or educational activities.

Many Cubans, like Coba, had been banking on the number of American arrivals continuing to grow. A recent report by the Boston Consulting Group said U.S. visitors to Cuba could rise by as much as sevenfold by 2025.

But that now looks unlikely. One proposal under consideration by the Trump administration, according to the U.S. sources, would tighten enforcement to make sure Americans legally fit the categories they claim to be traveling under, which could spook many visitors, wary of receiving a hefty fine.

Critics of Obama’s approach contend that many U.S. visitors have taken advantage of eased regulations and looser scrutiny to visit the island for pleasure trips.

Another harsher measure – but one considered less likely to be implemented – would be reverting to regulations requiring U.S. travelers to seek a special license to travel to Cuba. Most Americans would therefore likely choose to visit Cuba only as part of a group that organizes the paperwork.

Analysts say this would make travel there more expensive and less spontaneous. American visits would likely drop, hurting both U.S. airlines and accommodation services operating there, as well as the Cuban tourism industry.

Yaquelin Betancourt, 43, who has been renting out rooms on Airbnb since it entered the Cuban market in 2015, said any decrease would be a severe blow.

“I depend on rent to survive,” she said. “If I had Trump in front of me now, I’d say: leave us in peace. This is a people who does not want conflict with the United States.”


(Additional Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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