Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

When I was 16 I was pretty sure I was bulletproof and stood ready to right all wrongs and root out the evildoers. Fidel Castro was leading an insurgency in Cuba, and while I knew little about politics, it seemed the little guy was suffering under Fulgencio Batista and that this was a righteous fight. A bunch of my buddies and I fantasized about going to Cuba to be a part of the revolution.

I didn't go, but the episode stimulated an interest in and fascination with Cuba that lasted nearly 50 years before I was able to do anything about it.

As I mentioned in my last column, I celebrated my 75th birthday on a cruise to Cuba aboard the Fathom Adonia. I confess I had no clue what to expect for the onshore visit other than a few photos others had posted from their trips, but I knew it was going to be an adventure.

I also have to confess that I was initially concerned that Fathom didn't seem to be leveraging the vast resources of the Carnival Corp. family in launching the product. Now, having experienced it, I understand far better the rationale behind the path taken.

First, this was unlike any oceangoing cruise I ever took. It wasn't about being focused on deck games and activities or rushing off to the nearest beach in a port of call to sip a tall, cold drink with an umbrella in it, then buying up all the trinkets and treasures on the island.

The intent for Fathom's Cuba (and Dominican Republic) cruises is to interact with locals. It is refreshing to be a part of an activity designed to leave a place better than it was when we got there.

To draw a parallel, this is oceangoing adventure travel, in many ways similar to land-based adventure travels of the type offered by G Adventures Tours, which was founded in 1990 by Bruce Poon Tip. This is a product that requires substantial involvement from a trained travel professional.

Early on, it was rumored that Fathom management felt that would not be the case, that the majority of passengers could be booked direct. Recent Fathom initiatives to involve the retail travel channel persuaded me that even if those early rumors were true, there should be little concern any more about major disintermediation of the retail channel.

Management at Fathom has to balance having only one ship and a limited marketing budget against the need to raise product awareness in the minds of consumers to, among other things, assist retailers in selling the product.

It would do well to create an advisory board of agents who can share their methods for making one dollar work like five. I am confident that there are a dozen or so owners who fit this profile and will be a valuable asset to Fathom going forward.

Indeed, the pressing need now is for any agent selling the product to become knowledgeable enough to determine if the prospect is a good fit. My assessment is that there are two basic groups of prospects.

The first are baby boomers, many of whom share my fascination with the island, its people and its culture. Much of what they know about Cuba comes from scenes in "The Godfather: Part II" and a handful of other motion pictures.

They are prime candidates for many of the things in my review that comes later. They're going to love the old cars, the hints of the grandeur that once was and the food and entertainment. Travel counselors need to be sure clients with mobility challenges understand that Americans With Disability Act accessibility standards do not apply in some locations with architecture and construction dating back to the 16th century.

That said, there were a number of passengers using electric carts. My wife, Sherrie, had undergone knee surgery barely six weeks earlier, and I was about 10 weeks out from rotator cuff surgery. While some things took a little longer for us than it did others, we managed well.

The second group is millennials, who are characterized in the main by wanting to contribute, to make a difference and have an impact on the places they visit. For them, Carnival might want to create an even greater degree of involvement through onshore community-service programs and projects.

While there will likely be challenges to incorporate some or any of the types of projects going on in the Dominican Republic, Fathom would do well to expand onshore activities that would appeal to this demographic.

It bears mentioning that some retailers aren't going the extra mile in making sure their clients understand exactly what they are buying. I overheard several discussions and comments from passengers on our cruise who lamented that their agent had not given them more insight into the level of activity involved in the shore excursions and the highly structured nature of the off-ship activities.

One example of the extra effort required of retailers relates to Cuban currency and currency exchange. Several people on our sailing had been misinformed about the need to change currency, which currency they should expect to receive and, for those exchanging dollars, the 10% surcharge imposed by the Cuban government in addition to the 3% exchange fee for using U.S. currency.

The currency tourists use is the Cuban convertible peso (CUC, pronounced "kook"). The CUC trades on par with the U.S. dollar, so with the penalty and fee, the traveler gets the equivalent of 87 cents for each dollar converted.

The most important tip: Get to the currency exchange booth as soon as possible. Cuban immigration and the infrastructure that supports it are not ready to handle a ship much larger than the Adonia, so some time will be lost clearing immigration.

In addition, there are only 14 money-changing booths in Havana, so it's best to be one of the first in line. Experience taught me that I should have changed all the money I needed for the entire trip, because the facilities in other ports of call are even less plentiful, and there is no time to exchange in Cienfuegos and precious little time in Santiago.

Some will suggest it's OK to make purchases in U.S. dollars and let the merchant deal with the 13% exchange penalty. Given that the average worker in Cuba earns the equivalent of about $20 a month (a doctor earns $50, and the biggest earners may be farmers), I believe it's shameful to off-load the exchange penalty on the merchant.

Which brings me to my main complaint with the itinerary: We didn't have enough time to shop. I would have put a lot more money into the Cuban economy if we'd had more time, and that would have been an opportunity to do good for Cubans and begin repairing damaged relations.


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