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Special Report on Cuba Travel Reversal: What it Means to the Business of Sports

28 Jun, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Call it the Cuban Travel Crisis. The Trump Administration’s recent reversal of travel policies to Cuba has shaken the tourism industry with the force of a 7.0-Richter Scale earthquake. Sports tourism was no exception.

If approved, the new mandate will affect the ability of individuals to travel unescorted to Cuba, though travelers still can visit the country as part of tour groups. According to Meetings & Conventions, the policy is a reversal of the eased restrictions put in place by the Obama administration, and thus, subjects travelers to the pre-2016 rule.

But what does it mean to athletes? It depends upon their situation. Teams may qualify as a tour group, particularly when taking part in a large tournament – and this should continue if sports planners are savvy enough to work with a travel agent who can set out a program that would be found acceptable as part of an exchange.

The Los Angeles Times notes this means organizing a “full schedule of educational exchange activities” for athletes, their families and spectators.

Initially, before travel opened up, only certain Americans such as journalists, scholars, artists – and athletes – were eligible to visit Cuba. The mandate that anyone traveling under the people-to-people category must be part of a group will have significant ramifications for amateur athletes competing as individuals in events such as marathons, triathlons, swimming and fishing competitions and more.

Unless, of course, alternatives can be found.

Presently, there are travel agencies that offer packages to international destinations, allowing individuals to participate in sports or experience events on an individual basis.

Jay Smith notes that his company, Massachusetts-based Sports Travel and Tours, has offered Cuban baseball-related tourism packages, and that they have had the opportunity to study the new regs with an eye to what they will mean to athletes.

“The changes by the U.S. administration will roll back the clock a few years and still allow our group program to actually function as it has been. We did follow the person-to-person requirements and those are still in place. The changes will impact more individual travel for U.S. citizens looking to travel on their own. So some categories, such as cyclists and so forth, will need a governing body to orchestrate a group to be able to travel under, for people to comfortably be able to abide by the law.”

This may wind up being a membership boost for those organizations that elect to offer travel services as part of their benefits package to dues-paying members – or, as many groups are hopeful, that individual athletes participating in a Cuba-based event will simply be able to travel in under the auspices of group travel.

However, notes Smith – who is also the chairman of the nonprofit trade group, National Tour Association – it will also come down to how much national oversight the new regulations will be subject to. “As any other requirement, it is also still a question mark as to how the new law will be monitored by the U.S. government for people looking to travel to Cuba. There has not been a real demanding check and balance in the past monitoring or questioning once in Cuba. This is still an area to be determined once the actual new law is written which supposedly will take months. “

The American Society of Travel Agents has criticized the president’s new policy, saying it sets back advancements made in travel, and denies individuals the freedom to explore Cuba on their own.

Brendan Fox, head of commercial for the U.K.-based Sports Tours International, says the stateside quadrant of the sports tourism market might adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude.

“Cuba has been open to Europeans and Canadians for years and is a popular destination, with great hotels now,” he notes. “As far as the U.S. position, it is our guess that the rollback won't last. There are too many people standing to make money out of Cuba opening up to the U.S. market. The Havana Marathon is definitely on the up and there are a lot more cross-Cuba cycle rides being organized yearly. Opening up the U.S. border will lead to more people arriving and sustain the development of more sporting events.”

But, he adds, even that has a potential to cause problems, since a stampede of tourists “will drive hotel prices higher, lead to more commercial developments and potentially change the culture and character of the Island, not all for the better. Cuba has its very own individual nature and you don’t want it morphing into being like one of the other Caribbean destinations where there has been overdevelopment and a loss of character.”

While the new travel policies do present limitations, Travel Weekly notes they offer new potential to tour operators.

SmartTours CEO Greg Geronemus said, "The silver lining is that it's still very much possible to travel to Cuba -- the options have simply become more limited."

The Travel Weekly article further notes that tour operators do not appear to be backing down from selling or promoting Cuba. In fact, the new restrictions could result in increased demand because travelers might decide to book Cuba, should further restrictions make it even more difficult to travel there, said Travis Pittman, CEO of TourRadar, an online tour search and booking company.

After the rollback was announced, InsightCuba's web traffic increased and call centers were "backlogged," said Tom Popper, president of the Cuba specialist. He said customers called in to "find out what it all means and to book trips."

An overview of the potential effects of the rollback on various travel and tourism industry sectors can be found in this Travel Weekly article.

Katharine Bonner, senior vice president of high-end tour operator Tauck, in an interview with the L.A. Times, was careful to point out that no changes will take effect until new regulations are written by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

SDM will continue to report on this developing issue, particularly in light of emerging news on the travel ban.

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