From adventure to culture to special interest cruises, tour operators are breaking out of the box to showcase Cuba beyond classic cars, city tours and cigars.
Overall tourism this year was up 11.7% from January through June, totaling 2.1 million travelers, with significant increases from Spain, Portugal, Poland and Germany, according to Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero as reported by the Cuban state news agency Prensa Latina.
Cuba welcomed a total of 3.5 million visitors in 2015; close to 160,000 of those were U.S. leisure travelers.
Marrero reported that cruise passengers from January through June this year numbered 53,748, up from the 40,751 in the same period in 2015.
"The positive outcome of this segment in the new scenario comes on the heels of an increasing influx of international arrivals to the country," Marrero said.
He noted the favorable impact of calls by MSC Cruises' Opera and Carnival's Adonia, which sails under the new Fathom brand.
Given the shortage of hotel rooms in Havana and other popular stops, small-ship cruising is making inroads in the Cuban tourist scene.
Coming this fall is a new offering from Friendly Planet in collaboration with Celestyal Cruises. Seven-night packages depart Montego Bay and visit Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Punta Frances, Isle of Youth and Cienfuegos.
The 18 departures run from Nov. 25, 2016, through Dec. 22, 2017, and are priced from $1,999 if booked by Sept. 20. Prices include accommodations in standard inside cabins, port fees, most meals, unlimited drinks, four people-to-people shore excursions and Cuban-themed activities onboard the vessel.
The new seven-night Cruise Cuba package from Insight Cuba aboard the 36-cabin megayacht Voyager, meanwhile, features calls and people-to-people encounters along the south coast with a final stay in Havana and a flight back to Miami. It's priced from $5,990 per person with frequent departures through March and again in fall 2017.
Grand Circle is seeking Cuban government approval for a series of 11-night trips aboard the 89-passenger Clio from Miami that would start in January and include stops in six Cuban towns, three nights in Havana and a flight back to the U.S. Prices begin at $6,795 per person.
On the land side, to mark Cuba's 63rd Revolution Day on July 26, an annual holiday that celebrates the date in 1953 when Fidel Castro raided the barracks of the Batista dictatorship in Santiago, the Cuba Travel Network will launch its Revolutionary Trail itinerary from Santiago to Havana.
Travelers follow the trail of the revolution and visit Biran, Castro's birthplace; Granjita Siboney, a farmhouse outside Santiago that contains furniture and documents related to the barracks attack; and Comandancia La Plata, the base in the Sierra Maestra mountain range where Castro coordinated his rebel campaign.
The booking and travel windows are flexible; Cuba Travel Network specializes in independent travel, so the trip can be booked at any time. The operator will arrange rental cars or guides and drivers, and pricing depends upon activities and type of transport selected.
Row Adventures last spring launched Cuba Unbound, its first people-to-people kayak tour. Coming this fall, from November through April, is the Kayaking in the Wake of Christopher Columbus tour, an 11-day program that combines sea kayaking, hiking and cultural exploration in eastern Cuba, priced from $3,390 per person.
Row's nine-day walking tour of Cuba's national parks, natural reserves and world heritage sites runs from October through April, from $3,290 per person.
Fueling the surge in travel activity is the scheduled flights that have been greenlighted from 10 U.S. gateways to Cuban cities, in addition to the 20 daily flights on eight U.S. carriers to Havana, tentatively slated to begin as early as this fall.
The number of American travelers arriving by air in Cuba jumped 84% in the first half of 2016 over the same period in 2015, Marrero said via Prensa Latina.