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Is it safe to travel to Cuba after mysterious ‘sonic weapon’ attacks?

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 10/12/2017 Kari Paul
A car drives in central Havana, Cuba. © Provided by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. A car drives in central Havana, Cuba.

American citizens have been told to put the brakes on any upcoming travel to Cuba.

The State Department released a warning for U.S. citizens against visiting Cuba on Sept. 29, citing mysterious attacks on American diplomats there. An unknown, possibly “sonic weapon” allegedly left more than a dozen U.S. personnel with range of physical symptoms including hearing loss, dizziness, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.

The U.S. is investigating the perpetrator and weapon, but some have suggested ultrasound waves could cause such health effects. Some victims are now having trouble sleeping or remembering specific words. The attacks occurred in “diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens,” the State Department said, including one attack at Hotel Capri.

Also see: Why American tourists don’t want to travel to Cuba

“Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba,” the State Department said in a statement.

Following the alleged attacks, the U.S. pulled all non-essential personnel and staff from the island. American officials have not publicly accused Cuba of causing the injuries, but criticized the government for not preventing them and expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington until the issue is sorted out.

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Still, some experts have questioned the validity of the warning, writing it off as a move from the Trump administration to loosen ties with the country after President Donald Trump announced he would scale back U.S. and Cuba relations expanded under the Obama administration.

Cuba saw a 34% increase in visits from Cuban Americans and other U.S. travelers in 2016 and was expected to see an additional 4.1 million visitors in 2017. A reversal of the travel policies expanded under Obama would “devastate” Cuban citizens economically, experts say.

So is it safe for Americans to travel to Cuba?

One unnamed official criticized the U.S. for waiting until late September to remove staff, according to CBS (CBS)  as the attacks occurred in August. “Why did it take so long to draw down, to get spouses and children out of there?” the person told CBS. “I don’t know how they can justify leaving anyone down there right now, from a safety perspective.”

However, many travel companies are refusing to stop servicing the island. U.S. airlines have continued to operate flights to Cuba as usual and tour companies including SmarTours, Cuba Educational Travel, and Access Trips have maintained that they will continue trips unchanged.

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“Given that the issues raised by the State Department have not affected any U.S. travelers going to Cuba, we believe it remains a safe destination and will continue to offer tours there until that assessment changes,” Tamar Lowell, CEO of Access Trips said.

It is still legal to travel to Cuba under designated categories, said Greg Buzulencia, CEO of ViaHero, which creates personal itineraries for Americans visiting the country, and obviously has a vested interest in people going there.

To visit, tourists still have to fall under one of 12 approved categories, which include religious activities, humanitarian projects and journalistic activities. Many people choose another reason,” support for the Cuban people,” a broad category that allows the average American vacationer to travel to the country with little questioning.

Since the attacks reportedly occurred in major hotels, the more than 70% of Americans who stay in independently-owned bed and breakfast houses were not put at risk. To be safe, he suggested staying in these “casa particulares,” which can now be booked through Airbnb, to minimize risk.

“The main driver for the travel warning seems to be that U.S. State Department and the Trump administration are looking for ways to reverse the advances made in U.S.-Cuba relations and hurt the travel industry in Cuba,” he said. “They see this as an opening to do that. In the end, they are only punishing the local Cuban people that rely on the travel industry there.”


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