One tour operator's enthusiastic take on Cuba travel

A classic car in Cuba. The country has recently relaxed its entry policies, making Cuba travel more accessible for Americans. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
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Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

"Cuba is open!" said David Lee, founder and owner of Cultural Cuba, a company that provides travel to Cuba for Americans.

"We've been waiting for this since March 2020," he added. "It is critical for Cubans to have tourists return, and now the day has come."

Although Cuba had technically been open for several months prior to the official reopening date, the stiff quarantine regulations, reduced airlift, lack of accommodations and low vaccine numbers within Cuba had severely restricted visitor arrivals.

As of mid-November, however, fully vaccinated Cubans numbered more than 77%, according to data from the Ministry of Health; its goal is to have 95% of the 11 million population vaxxed by mid-December, including children over two years of age.

As of last week, vaccinated travelers must present proof of their vaccination, and unvaccinated travelers must produce the result of a negative PCR test done 72 hours prior to arrival. Quarantine and further testing have been eliminated.

Lee said that eliminating the quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers has changed the game in Cuba travel.

"There's no question that we're seeing bookings for the Festive season," Lee said. "Demand is high. In 2019, Festive bookings were sold out long before this. Now of course the booking window is much shorter because Cuba just reopened." 

Working with a travel advisor

Cultural Cuba, which works through travel advisors, caters to the affluent, well-traveled visitor and became a member of the Virtuoso Sustainability Community this year.

"We're all about supporting our travel advisor partners, so that their clients can enjoy seamlessly arranged legal travel under the Support for the Cuban People license with Cultural Cuba as the sponsoring entity," Lee said.

A dedicated travel advisor portal on the Cultural Cuba site enables registered advisors to arrange time slots with their clients and Lee to discuss clients' interests and their reasons for wanting to visit Cuba.

"Our travel advisors are our true partners," Lee said. "They bring us the clients, and we do the rest: paperwork, accommodations, flights. It's seamless and secure. Everything is included, and commissions start at 12%. We build itineraries based on what their clients want to see and do. A private guide is with them throughout. Our concept is travel with a local friend who wants to bring you into his world."

What Cuba travelers can expect

Visitors can travel in 1950s classic cars, now updated with air conditioning. A photographer accompanies the travelers for a day or so, snapping photos and then presents them with a photo book as a souvenir at trip's end.

All guides and drivers are fully vaccinated and wear masks as protocols dictate.

Meals are taken at paladares, which are restaurants in private residences or apartments where the owners live. Menus go well beyond the rice and beans staple commonly found throughout Cuba, and payment for a meal goes directly to the owner as part of the Support for the Cuban People category of legalized travel for Americans visiting Cuba.

"The U.S. government wants to make sure that the money goes to the Cuban people," Lee said. "Our company supports several initiatives to support the Cubans, including a preschool for disadvantaged children, sort of like Head Start in the U.S. We also have a senior center and we support a Cuban dance company."

Nightlife spills into the streets of Cuba with music and dance throughout the neighborhoods, especially in Old Havana. The guides transform themselves into nightlife concierges who call ahead to find where the best salsa bands are performing, for clients who want to take in that scene.

Cigar pairings and rum tastings can be arranged, as can city bike tours in Havana, outings for birder enthusiasts and "down time for travelers who just want an afternoon siesta," Lee said.

He described a visit to Cuba as a place full of magical possibilities. "The Cuban people are artistically talented, highly educated and culturally curious," he said. "They take pride in their families, and they want to share experiences and connect with their visitors."

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