2017-2018 Travel News

U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory

On September 29, 2017, the U.S. Department of State issued a Travel Advisory for Cuba to all U.S. Citizens.  This is a unique advisory as far as these things go. There is little doubt that whatever has affected the nearly two dozen U.S. diplomatic staff and family members (as well as at least 1 Canadian diplomatic staff) should be taken seriously.  Because there are many unknowns, it does make sense to move non-essential staff out of Havana and away from the source of these problems, at least until the source, responsible entity, and both short-term and long-term effects of these afflictions are better understood.

What seems to be missing from the advisory is a statement clarifying that these symptoms first starting appearing in some staff dating back to late 2016, and in all likelihood, were a result of repeated, perhaps daily exposure to what has been described as ‘some sort of sonic device”. The NY Times identified the Hotel Capri as the hotel where a member of the US Diplomatic staff who suffered symptoms was residing. There is no indication of how long this person was staying at the hotel, but one would assume that it was for at the least several days, if not several weeks.   In short, as much as there may be no doubt that there is a risk to US Diplomatic staff & families residing in certain buildings in Havana, to link the same level of risk to any and all U.S. visitors to Cuba is an incredible stretch!

Thus far, these ‘attacks’ have been documented as occurring at diplomatic residences, and 1 hotel.  Since U.S. Diplomatic staff are restricted from traveling outside of Havana Province, and all reside in Havana, the exposure to these risks has been limited to very specific locations within the city.  One can conclude that unless you were spending time in these specific locations, the risk would be quite limited.  There are no known cases of these symptoms that have impacted US Diplomats occurring in non-diplomatic visitors or residents of Cuba.  Approximately 2.5 million tourists visited Cuba in 2016.  Numbers of visitors are expected to be slightly higher for 2017.

In all other respects, Havana is by far the safest city in Latin America, and Cuba, among the safest countries for tourists to visit, period.  There is little violent crime, and more than adequate police presence, especially in cities. At most our groups will have up to 3 nights in Havana, and will not stay in areas where these incidents have allegedly occurred. The rest of our time will be spent in other provinces, quite far from where these issues have been reported as occurring, and quite close to some of Cuba’s more peaceful and enchanting natural areas.

My hope is that once these problems have been identified and fully addressed, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba will settle down, and the current travel advisory will be lifted.  For now, our groups have very little to be concerned about in terms of being exposed to threats to their well being while visiting Cuba.

HURRICANE IRMA UPDATE   October, 2017

Fortunately, although this storm did incredible damage to the part of the country that lied in its path, our scheduled programs are predominantly unaltered. At least 85 % of our planned itinerary for late 2017 trips is unaffected.  Early 2018 trips will most likely be as scheduled, with no itinerary changes.   Cuba’s Caribbean coast and western provinces reported no significant damage.  Where there is damage, the key birds we seek in those areas are being reported surprisingly soon after the storm.

Hurricane Irma made impact primarily on Cuba’s north coast (Atlantic), touching down east of Cayo Coco before moving offshore about 150 miles west of where it landed.  Damage occurred to both habitat and structures, including bridges, roadways, and hotels.  The Cuban Government is apparently a bit ahead of schedule for opening hotels on the archipelago sometime in late October. Our local biologists in the keys report a good variety of birds in habitat that was relatively spared. These birds include the 3 endemic species we visit the keys to see – Cuban Gnatcatcher, Oriente Warbler, and Zapata Sparrow (Cayo Coco race). Thick-billed Vireo, Bahama Mockingbird, and West Indian Whistling Duck are Caribbean endemics that have been reported as well.

Havana suffered from coastal flooding, high winds, and the temporary hardships that followed – lack of electricity and structural damage.  There were a total of 10 fatalities reported in Cuba as a result of the storm, which is truly unfortunate, but could obviously have been worse.

Rule changes for Authorized Cuba Travel for U.S. Citizens and legal residents

On June 16, 2017 the current Administration announced rule changes affecting individual authorized travel to Cuba.   Group travel to Cuba, which describes how CCT operates, was not impacted.  Our authorization is completely intact, and all of our late 2017, early 2018 programs are going ahead as scheduled.   The Administration was scheduled to provide these changes in writing in mid-September, but as of October 1st, 2017, there has not been any follow up from the June 16th announcement.  To put things into further perspective, the announced changes are actually not yet in effect!

We are monitoring these pending changes, but have little concern that there will be an impact on our legal authorization to travel to Cuba, which we have pursued and been granted successfully each year dating back to 1996.

New Programs for the current birding season, starting in November 2017

We are offering an exciting new program in partnership with BirdWatching Magazine. In December DAVID SIBLEY will escort a group along with CCT Founder and Director Gary Markowski and CCT biologist Dr Luis Diaz.  This trip is sold out, but we have availability for November 2017, January and April 2018 trips.

Our April 2018 trip will be escorted by PETE DUNNE, along with his wife Linda Dunne, and CCT Ornithologist Michael Good
12-2017 update: Pete Dunne has had to cancel. We are still running the trip, and are lucky to have Nils Navarro as the co-leader with Mike Good.

We are also offering Natural History of Cuba programs in February and April 2018. These trips will still focus on birds, albeit less intently than our typical programs, and offer an interesting variety of other nature-related experiences and topics, which will include some of Cuba’s amazing reptiles, amphibians, endemic plants, caves, and reefs.  Beginning in June we will be offering HERPETOLOGY PROGRAMS, that will examine Cuba’s abundant and attractive reptiles and amphibians, which feature many endemic and regional endemic species.

CCT Conservation Initiatives in 2017 will continue in early 2018.  Beginning in late 2016 through the current year, CCT donated or facilitated the donation and delivery of more than 60 hummingbird feeders, 50 pairs of binoculars, 70 field guides, 2 spotting scopes and tripods, 250 bird conservation-themed coloring books, and several boxes of crayons, pencils, and additional art supplies.

These resources were primarily donated in support of a community conservation education program that CCT has developed for mostly rural communities that are in proximity to IBAs – Important Bird Areas, as well as national parks, biosphere reserves, and other protected areas.  Local biologists we have worked with for many years are responsible for the management of donated resources for use in local endemic bird festivals, and classroom experiences that focus on bird identification and conservation.

A primary goal is to change the perspective on the value of wild birds and healthy habitat, with a specific objective of confronting the caged bird trade, which has recently increased in part to an easing of travel between Cuba and other countries, including the United States.

In July of 2017, CCT Executive Director Gary Markowski presented a workshop on the caged bird trade in Cuba at a regional ornithological conference sponsored by Birds Caribbean.  The workshop was very well attended and resulted in the establishment of a working group comprised of more than 2 dozen Cuban Government biologists and administrators.  This group is currently developing strategies that can be implemented in some cases by our birding groups that will help confront this very serious issue.

We appreciate the support of all of our travelers who have contributed to these efforts.  Special thanks go to Paul Baicich, Kenn Kaufmann, Will Young, David Hartgrove, Reiner Munguia, Randy Rogers, and Andy Griswold. We thank them as well as our fabulous partner organizations that were involved in various aspects of making these initiatives move from concept to reality. They include Paul Baicich’s Great Birding Projects, Kaufmann Field Guides, Halifax River Audubon Society, Ohio Ornithological Society, and Connecticut Audubon Society.

We look forward to continuing these worthy efforts, and involving our future Cuba bird survey participants in the coming 2017 – 2018 birding season in Cuba!

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