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Demand for Travel to Cuba Flattening with soaring Hotel Prices on the Island: New Travel Restrictions likely to be imposed when Donald Trump takes Office

Gregory Geronemus, co-CEO of smarTours, a tour company that's taken 3,000 Americans to Cuba, confirms there has been a softening in demand

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U.S. tourists walks outside the Bodeguita del Medio Bar frequented by the late American novelist Ernest Hemingway in Old Havana, Cuba, May 24, 2015. One airline's cutback in flights to Cuba may be a sign that demand for travel to the island is slowing down amid uncertainty about Donald Trump's Cuba policies along with a near-doubling of Havana hotel prices and concerns over Zika, VOA
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Dec 8, 2016: Demand for travel to Cuba may be flattening, with soaring hotel prices on the island, American Airlines cutting some flights, and uncertainty over whether new travel restrictions could be imposed when Donald Trump takes office.

Gregory Geronemus, co-CEO of smarTours, a tour company that’s taken 3,000 Americans to Cuba, confirms there has been a softening in demand.

In part he blamed hotel prices on the island, which have nearly doubled since 2015 and which are set by the government.

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“There’s still demand but there’s only so much people can afford,” he said. Cheaper lodging is available through Airbnb and other services, but not all travelers want the hassles and uncertainty of traveling on their own in Cuba.

“Zika has cast a shadow”

Geronemus said “Zika has cast a shadow” on the region too, despite the Cuban government’s assertion that mosquito abatement efforts have been successful. Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, can cause birth defects.

While an increasing number of airlines are offering flights, American Airlines is cutting three of its 13 daily flights to Cuba beginning February 16 and switching to smaller planes on some routes, said spokesman Matt Miller. He added that adjustments are common with new service and that the reduction was made before the presidential election.

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ForwardKeys, which compiles data based on global reservations transactions, says it has not detected a drop in bookings for Cuba. And Cuban government statistics show an 80 percent increase in visits by Americans the first six months of this year over the same period in 2015, from 76,183 to 136,913.

U.S. airlines add flights

In the last few weeks, several U.S. airlines started regular commercial flights to Cuba. United Airlines launched Newark-Havana flights November 29 and Saturday service from Houston on December 3.

Spokesman Jonathan Guerin said the airline is “prepared to work with the new administration” going forward.

JetBlue, which also just launched service, would not provide specifics but said “we are pleased with how flights to Cuba are selling.”

Tanner Callais of Austin, Texas, who runs a cruise website called Cruzely.com, had hoped to cruise to Cuba in 2017.

But “now with some of the things I’ve heard about tightening up restrictions on travel to Cuba, we’re taking a wait and see approach,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is put a lot of money down for a trip and then have the cruise cancelled due to new restrictions put in place.”

Travel ban a concern

Others are booking trips as soon as they can, fearing a Cuba travel ban under Trump.

“Ordinarily we book trips three to six months ahead but people are calling this week to register for trips three weeks from now,” said Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive director of GlobeAware, which organizes volunteer trips.

Though Geronemus says the softening started “long before Trump was elected,” some travelers are asking for reassurance that they’d be covered if travel gets banned between the time they book their tickets and their planned trip. That has smarTours promising a full refund or credit for a discounted trip elsewhere should new rules make it impossible to go ahead with a trip, Geronemus says.

Trump’s plan unsure

Erika Richter, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, says “some people we talk to are convinced that everything will be rolled back on January 21. Others think, as a hospitality industry leader, [Trump] will not follow through. So, I think it’s probable but not guaranteed that we see a roll back in early 2017.”

But what Trump has in mind for Cuba is unclear. Three days after Fidel Castro’s death, the president-elect tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

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Some critics believe the Obama administration should have held out for democratic and human rights reforms as part of the loosening of travel restrictions. But others think that stimulating Cuba’s economy through travel — including inroads by U.S. cruise, hotel and tour companies there — is the best way to bring change.

Cruise lines headed to Cuba

On Wednesday, two U.S. cruise companies, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean International received permission from the Cuban government to sail from the U.S. to Cuba. In May, Carnival Corp. became the first U.S. company in decades to run cruises to Cuba.

Haley-Coleman thinks the most likely scenario is a return to strict enforcement of rules for permitted types of trips. Even under President Obama, Americans can’t go to Cuba as regular tourists. They have to certify that their trip falls into one of 12 permitted categories, including educational, humanitarian or cultural travel.

Right now, though, that certification is done on the honor system.

Haley-Coleman thinks Trump may require itineraries be pre-approved to ensure Americans are not just drinking mojitos on the beach.

Also Wednesday, a group of Cuban entrepreneurs traveled to Washington to deliver a letter asking Trump to support increased U.S. travel, trade and investment with Cuba. As owners of restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and other businesses, they said that continued engagement with the U.S. is essential for progress and growth on the island.  (VOA)

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U.S. Appeals Court Refuses To Enforce Asylum Ban On Immigrants

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Asylum, Trump
A migrant family from Central America waits outside the Annunciation House shelter in El Paso, Texas, after a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer drops them off. VOA

A divided U.S. appeals court late Friday refused to immediately allow the Trump administration to enforce a ban on asylum for any immigrants who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

The ban is inconsistent with an existing U.S. law and an attempted end-run around Congress, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 decision.

“Just as we may not, as we are often reminded, ‘legislate from the bench,’ neither may the Executive legislate from the Oval Office,” 9th Circuit Judge Jay Bybee, a nominee of Republican President George W. Bush, wrote for the majority.

Refugees, Migrants, Asylum seekers, Trump
Men line up for dinner outside a shelter housing members of the migrant caravan, in Tijuana, Mexico. VOA

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, Steven Stafford, did not have comment. But he referred to an earlier statement that called the asylum system broken and said the department looked forward to “continuing to defend the Executive Branch’s legitimate and well-reasoned exercise of its authority to address the crisis at our southern border.”

Trump proclamation

At issue is President Donald Trump’s Nov. 9 proclamation that barred anyone who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border between official ports of entry from seeking asylum. Trump issued the proclamation in response to caravans of migrants approaching the border.

A lower court judge temporarily blocked the ban and later refused to immediately reinstate it. The administration appealed to the 9th Circuit for an immediate stay of Judge Jon Tigar’s Nov. 19 temporary restraining order.

In a dissenting opinion Friday, 9th Circuit Judge Edward Leavy said the administration “adopted legal methods to cope with the current problems rampant at the southern border.” Nothing in the law the majority cited prevented a rule categorically barring eligibility for asylum on the basis of how a person entered the country, Leavy, a nominee of Republican President Ronald Reagan, said.

Refugees, Migrants, Asylum seekers, Trump
Honduran migrant Genesis Belen Mejia Flores, 7, waves an American flag at U.S. border control helicopters flying overhead near the Benito Juarez Sports Center serving as a temporary shelter for Central American migrants, in Tijuana, Mexico. VOA

Federal law is clear

In his Nov, 19 ruling, Tigar sided with legal groups who argued that federal law is clear that immigrants in the U.S. can request asylum regardless of whether they entered legally.

The president “may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” the judge said in his order.

Also Read: Refugees’ Entitled To Claim The Right To Asylum in The U.S: U.N.

The ruling led to an unusual public dispute between Trump and Chief Justice John Roberts after Trump dismissed Tigar — an appointee of Trump’s predecessor — as an “Obama judge.”

Roberts responded with a statement that the federal judiciary doesn’t have “Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” (VOA)