For the first time in nine years, agents will again be able to sell travel to Cuba, as two major operators that last partnered in 2003 once more join forces to offer authorized travel to the Caribbean’s largest island under the people-to-people cultural program.
Insight Cuba, a company licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to operate people-to-people programs to Cuba, and tour operator General Tours World Traveler have renewed their exclusive partnership to offer legal travel to Cuba despite the U.S. government’s 50-year-old trade embargo.
The two companies had enjoyed a collaborative relationship before the people-to-people program was ended by the Bush administration in 2004.
The Obama administration resurrected the cultural travel category in January 2011, and Insight Cuba got the ball rolling when it became the first licensed operator to sell Cuba through the people-to-people initiative.
The company had hoped to partner with General Tours from the get-go, as it had in the heady days before the Bush administration slammed the door shut on almost all nonfamily travel to Cuba. But that process took time.
The highly regulated, tightly controlled arena of travel to Cuba from the U.S. “is challenging and requires a good deal of patience,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba.
“This is momentous,” Popper said. “We worked together in 2003 on Cuba programs, bringing 3,000 travelers that year to Cuba. Now, we are collaborating again and can offer a broader scope of products.”
Popper added that “with General Tours’ powerful agent network, we look forward to making Cuba available to even more Americans.”
A letter received from OFAC this fall gave the partnership a green light, granting permission for General Tours to work with Insight Cuba on promoting the authorized people-to-people programs.
The letter, which General Tours President Bob Drumm described as “recognition of General Tours’ relationship with Insight Cuba,” was separate from the OFAC license granted to Insight Cuba to operate the programs.
OFAC requires that the license be renewed annually, and Insight, along with a number of other travel companies, encountered delays earlier this year in the OFAC license-renewal process. In fact, Insight had to lay off several employees and cancel some planned departures when the process slowed to a crawl.
The license finally arrived in September, and the employees have since been rehired.
Other companies receiving licenses included Friendly Planet, YMT Vacations, Grand Circle Foundation, GeoEx, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Moto Discovery Tours, International Expeditions, Smithsonian Journeys, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Collette Vacations and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
So where does the travel agent fit into this Insight Cuba-General Tours partnership scenario, and how do agents stand to benefit?
Drumm said that a special letter of authorization from OFAC “permits us to partner with Insight Cuba and allows us to pay referral fees to agents who send clients to us who have expressed an interest in going to Cuba on a people-to-people program.”
General Tours provides the agents’ clients with information on Insight’s programs, tour activities, itineraries, prices and dates.
“Then we ‘warmly’ transfer the clients over to Insight’s team, which physically handles all the booking arrangements,” Drumm said. “Under the current OFAC rules regulating the people-to-people programs, nonlicensed entities such as General Tours are not allowed to book the travel or collect any money.”
General Tours tracks the client’s booking as it moves through Insight’s system. Once the booking is finalized, Drumm said, “we will pay the travel agent who sent us that client in the first place what is called a referral fee, commensurate with our usual full commission.”
The referral fee is identical to the commission structure that General Tours uses to pay agents. In addition, General Tours will pay an agent a bonus of $100 for group bookings of eight or more travelers.
According to the terms of their business relationship, Insight compensates General Tours for the booking with an overall fee, as well.
The four programs that Insight Cuba and General Tours are offering in 2013 are featured on General Tours’ website and are effective Dec. 17.
“We can advise agents on current rules and regulations regarding legal travel to Cuba in addition to providing information on the four people-to-people programs,” Drumm said. “If an agent wants to run a webinar on Cuba, we also can help them with that.”
Drumm said that Insight’s “far-reaching expertise in Cuba is a perfect fit with our 65-year commitment of providing travelers with extraordinary experiences and services in the world’s most fascinating places.”
The four programs it is operating with General Tours includes a new 12-day tour called Undiscovered Cuba, the longest in Insight’s portfolio.
In addition, Insight operates two other programs that are not part of the General Tours offerings. Its four-day Weekend in Havana tour has frequent departures beginning Jan. 17 and is priced from $2,095, not including roundtrip air from Miami. The five-day Jazz in Havana tour offers encounters with and performances by Cuban jazz musicians with departures from Jan. 16 and is priced from $2,795 without air.
Despite the license-renewal delay, Popper described 2012 as “the most fantastic year ever. The experiences and stories from our clients are amazing. Despite the challenges we face in operating the strictly regulated programs to Cuba, it is so gratifying, and we are seeing a number of repeat travelers returning for another Cuban experience.”
December departures are sold out; January “is selling briskly,” Popper said.
The firm offers more than 100 departures through September on its six itineraries, including the four with General Tours.
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.
Four people-to-people programs scheduled for 2013
Insight Cuba and General Tours World Traveler offer four people-to-people programs to Cuba in 2013. The tours, which never exceed 24 participants, begin and end in Havana and include accommodations, the services of a Cuban guide and trip leader, all meals, guided activities, entrance fees and ground transportation. Roundtrip air from Miami is extra.
• Classic Cuba, seven nights. In Havana, the tour visits a synagogue, the Literacy Museum, the Compania de Baile Espanol, a school and a medical clinic; in Trinidad, stops are made at the Museum of Architecture, Ballet Folklorico de Trinidad, a ceramic workshop and the children’s chorus Coro del Cienfuegos. Frequent departures from Jan. 15; land rates start at $3,595 per person, double.
• Scenic Cuba, seven nights. The Havana visit includes meetings with artists and musicians, a tour of an organic farm, a performance by the Compania de Baile Espanol ballet and the Culinary School of Havana. In Pinar del Rio in eastern Cuba, participants learn about socialized health care, meet with artists and tobacco farmers and tour a nature reserve and a fishing village. Departures from Jan. 19; land rates from $3,195, per person, double.
• Cuban Music & Art, eight nights. Included are visits with local artists, photographers and musicians at La Zorra y El Cuevo jazz club; a tour of the Fine Arts Museum; and meetings with students and faculty of the Lazos de Sonrisa community project and the founder of the Compania de Baile Espanol. In Santiago, on Cuba’s eastern end, participants visit a clinic; the Casa Artex arts school, to learn about the impact of religious folk art; and the village of Cobrea, where pilgrims make offerings to a black Madonna statue. Departures from Jan. 18; land rates from $4,297 per person, double.
• Undiscovered Cuba, 11 nights. This tour includes a visit to Havana, the colonial-era churches of Remedios, a school in Ciega de Avila and the Ballet de Camaguey. Participants meet singers at the Professional Choir of Bayamo before spending three days in Santiago de Cuba on the island’s east coast, where they meet artists, students, factory workers and dance troupes. Departures from Jan. 14; land rates from $4,195 per person, double.