Why The New US Travel Rules Are Bad News For Travellers From Cuba

The United States has reopened to the world – sort of. The United States is welcoming paid-up members of the fully vaccinated club, but that’s just over 40% of the world’s population. Further, not all vaccines are created equal, and that’s impacting fully vaccinated travelers looking to fly in from places like Cuba.

The US is rolling out the welcome mat to fully vaccinated travelers but the vaccinations of most Cubans are not recognized. Photo: Miami Dade Aviation Department

Cuban vaccination rates are high, but the vaccines are not widely recognized

While vaccination rates in Cuba are relatively high (over 68% of Cuban adults are fully vaccinated – a higher rate than in the US), Cuba’s most common vaccination types are not on the World Health Organization’s approved list, meaning the US does not recognize those vaccines.

Most Cubans were vaccinated with home-grown vaccines called Soberana 02, Soberana Plus, and Abdala. None are recognized by the WHO, meaning most vaccinated Cubans cannot take advantage of the recently relaxed entry regime in the US. A minority of Cubans were vaccinated with Sinopharm, which is recognized.

Cuba isn’t the only country in the region still facing barriers to entry to the US. Russian manufactured Sputnik is a relatively popular vaccine in this part of the world, and the US doesn’t recognize that either.

Entry into the US remains a problem for most Cubans, even if fully vaccinated. Photo: US Customs & Border Protection

Meanwhile, Cuba is about to welcome fully vaccinated travelers

It’s bad news for Cuba and comes just as the country starts to unwind entry and travel restrictions. Next week, Cuba is eliminating mandatory quarantine and COVID tests for fully vaccinated inbound travelers – including US citizens.

It comes just in time for Cuba’s peak tourist season. In 2019, 4.2 million tourists touched down in Havana, tipping US$3 billion into the local economy. So far this year, around 280,000 (mostly Russian) have landed.

While Cubans may be restricted from flying to the US until the WHO recognizes their most common vaccines, the Cuban tourist sector hopes plenty of fully vaccinated travelers from elsewhere will soon start flying in.

Southwest Airlines is resuming flights to Cuba in December. Photo: Southwest Airlines

US airlines to step up Cuba flights, but fares remain high

While flights from the US to Cuba are limited, they are timetabled to increase. American Airlines presently operates a weekly Boeing 787-8 flight between Miami and Havana but plans to start daily flights in early December.

“On December 2, we are increasing our service to one daily flight between Miami and Havana,” an American Airlines spokesperson told The Miami Herald. “American will bring back more service as the Cuban government reopens the market.”

However, the Miami Herald report called out the pricing on these flights. The newspaper says American is asking for around US$1500 for a return trip between Miami and Havana. That’s a big ask for a 234 mile (377 kilometers) sector that takes just over one hour to fly.

The newspaper argues in addition to vaccination barriers Cubans wanting to fly the US face, cost-prohibitive flights may prevent many US-based travelers from going to Cuba.

American Airlines is resuming daily flights to Havana in December. Photo: Miami Dade Aviation Department

JetBlue has also operated a weekly Fort Lauderdale – Havana flight. Those flights are increasing to five days a week by December and are even more pricey.

Adding some welcome competition to the market is Southwest Airlines who will resume daily flights between Tampa and Havana on December 4. Flights between Fort Lauderdale and Havana are restarting from December 6. Southwest flights to Havana from Orlando are not scheduled for the remainder of the year.

But no matter how deep your pockets, the lesson learned from the vaccine dilemma Cubans wanting to fly to the US face is not all vaccines are created equal.