Reuters recently reported a sharp downturn in the number of U.S. tourists visiting Cuba in the first quarter of 2018 compared with the year prior. Senior editor Jamie Biesiada spoke with David Lee, founder of tour operator Cultural Cuba, about the drop and his optimistic view that Americans will start returning to the island in larger numbers in the months ahead.
Q: Why did the number of Americans visiting Cuba drop?
A: I kind of look at it like the trifecta of bad news for Cuba. First, there was the hurricane [Irma, last fall]. The hurricane actually didn't really affect Havana at all, but it doesn't matter, because news comes down. There were certainly photographs, video of flooded streets, that sort of thing. It was cleaned up literally in a week and a half, but that happened.
Then, the Trump administration. President Donald Trump first made a speech in June of 2017 that scared a lot of people and said, 'We're going to crack down.' It was the typical rhetoric that comes out of that administration: 'It was a bad deal,' 'We should re-look at the whole situation and tighten restrictions.' It scared people; that was the problem. And really, what the reality was ... in November, they released a set of restrictions, and it was a whole lot of nothing. It doesn't really affect travel to Cuba, especially those that were traveling legally [under one of the 12 government-approved reasons]. The negative was that you had this rhetoric that made it seem like it was confusing ... but that wasn't the case.
And then, it was that whole situation with the diplomats being recalled because of reports of illness and potential attacks on them. So that's what I call the trifecta -- three things that happened in Cuba in 2017 that, PR-wise, were not good.
Q: Was your business affected?
A: From our perspective, we just had to kind of re-educate clients. Because in my business we work through travel agents primarily, and we cater to private/custom trips, we didn't see too much of a downturn. It's the high-touch business that I'm in. But the companies that were doing more group volume, I know they were hit hard ... and you could see it. You could actually see it in Cuba. There were less Americans, just less tourists in general. You could feel it.
When I had to book the private restaurants -- some of them are very small -- I would have to book them sometimes months in advance to make sure we had a table; it became a lot easier, even over the peak period. So there was definitely a downturn. Fortunately, for the type of business that I'm in, we weren't really affected much. Maybe we had a 5% decrease.
Q: Are things turning around?
A: It seems like it's coming back. The volume of inquiries that we're getting now is starting to feel kind of like it was in the real boom, which was the end of '16, beginning of '17, when it was just the hottest topic and it was on a lot of lists of the No. 1 tourist destinations anywhere in the world. ... From a travel perspective, I really think three, four, five months maybe, it should be pretty much back where it was.
Q: What about after that?
A: I expect further growth. They're building more hotels; you can see cranes moving all the time. They're bullish on it also, or they wouldn't be putting that much money into it.
Q: What would you tell travel agents who want to sell Cuba?
A: If they have any questions, reach out. Reach out to companies like mine. We're on the same team. We're there to help them as a resource for information that they can give to their clientele.