For Cuba tour operators, demand exceeding expectations

By Gay Nagle Myers
Cuba-CapitolBuilding-creditIt’s been a heady year for travel to Cuba, as a number of operators have rushed to offer programs that bring Americans and Cubans together on cultural exchange trips.

A policy change by the Obama administration in January restored the people-to-people category of travel, reversing a 2004 decision that halted such programs.

Groups and organizations that operate these trips must navigate a complicated Treasury Department application process, and confusion surrounding the regulations caught several applicants off guard.

Abercrombie & Kent pulled its programs off the market soon after they were introduced, pending a review and clarification. Also, the Globus family of brands has delayed the release of departure dates “until we can confirm the exact payment process and other details,” a spokesman said.

Among the first companies to be granted the license was Insight Cuba, which had offered the programs between 1999 and 2003.

Insight Cuba led off with six itineraries and 126 departures running through August 2012.

For director Tom Popper, the response “far exceeded expectations. We announced the programs in July and by mid-December had booked 2,000 passengers.”

The firm’s three Havana-only programs that include New Year’s Eve in the capital city “have done particularly well,” he said.

Insight Cuba plans to add more departures and programs in 2012, especially to eastern Cuba.

National Geographic Expeditions entered the Cuba scene after receiving its license in August. The operator, which had operated people-to-people programs in 2001 and 2002, initially offered 12 departures on its 10-day Cuba program, set to run through May 12.

“The interest has been phenomenal,” said Lynn Cutter, the National Geographic Society’s senior vice president of travel and business development. “We now have 25 departures scheduled, nearly all are sold out and we are working on securing more dates.”

National Geographic Expeditions is working with Washington-based Academic Travel Abroad, which serves as the organization’s licensed travel service provider, to handle the bookings and payments.

Joining the Cuba people-to-people tourism arena in early October was Austin-Lehman Adventures with its Real Cuba program, set to launch in February with a series of six 10-day tours through June.

Founder Dan Austin described the process of developing the itinerary as “nothing shy of interesting, to say the least. I have spent more time and energy in developing our new Cuba program than any six trips in recent memory.”

Interest in the trips is coming from all quarters, including past clients and new travelers from all over the U.S., Austin said.

“We are limiting each departure to 12 participants, and one Cuban and one American guide on each tour.”

The latest entrant is Friendly Planet, which is offering two programs, beginning in January. A five-day Havana itinerary runs through Sept. 26; an eight-day itinerary that covers Havana as well as Trinidad, a designated Unesco World Heritage Site, runs through May.

The response “has been phenomenal and has exceeded expectations,” said Peggy Goldman, Friendly Planet’s president. “We have 500 participants already booked and we are adding departures in 2012 because of the demand.”

But she pointed out that the dearth of accommodations in Cuba “keeps a lid on the number of departures.”
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