Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

Demand for Cuba travel among American travelers continues to be as hot as Cuba's popular Burn In Hell, Fidel habanero hot sauce that tops off many dishes.

Despite the continued U.S. government restrictions limiting approved travel to 12 authorized categories, the combined number of visitors from the U.S. in 2016 was more than 614,000 travelers, up 34% over 2015, according to Josefina Vidal, director of U.S. Affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

Cuba received a total of more than four million tourists in 2016, an increase of 6% over 2015, according to the Cuban Tourism Ministry (Mintur).

A recent survey of 1,689 leisure-focused travel agents from Travel Leaders Group indicated that close to 22% said they have already booked clients for Cuba travel this year, and more than 59% reported that clients have expressed an interest in travel to Cuba this year. Those numbers were up slightly from 2016, when 19% said they'd booked clients to Cuba and 58% reported interest in the destination.

“While there is some uncertainty about the views of the current U.S. administration on the future of Cuban relations, the momentum of public opinion among the American traveling public for unfettered access to Cuba continues,” said Ninan Chacko, CEO, Travel Leaders Group.

Chacko said that his group's survey, along with anecdotal feedback from agents' clients, indicates that more Americans are using avenues available to them to legally travel to Cuba.

“Our travel agent experts continue to assist clients who want to visit Cuba by observing the existing law,” he said.

The top response from clients when asked when they wanted to go this year to Cuba was when they could do it as an independent trip rather than on a people-to-people exchange program.

Others said “right away before Cuba changes dramatically,” “as part of a cruise vacation,” “when the prices decrease” and “when we can enjoy Cuba as a regular beach vacation.

Havana ranked No. 49 (tied with Vancouver) when the Travel Leaders Group agents were asked to name the top five international destinations being booked for 2017. That was 12 spots higher than the city ranked in 2016.

Luxury travel agents who are part of TLG's Elite Division — agents within Protravel International and Tzell Travel Group — ranked Cuba 12th (after Spain and before Baltic cruises).

“What Cuba's high ranking also tells us is that luxury travel to Cuba is more about the 'exclusiveness of the experience,' the mystery of exploring a new destination and learning about a culture that is widely unknown, even with many travelers who have covered the world,” said Gail Grimmett, president of Protravel International and Tzell Travel Group.

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