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Clockwise from top left: Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama Photo Credit: Costa Rica image courtesy of ICT Costa Rica Tourism Board.

Selling New Adventures in Close-In Emerging Destinations

What’s the top influence when making travel plans? For nearly three-quarters (74%) of global travelers, it’s “going somewhere I’ve never been before,” according to the 34,000 traveler respondents of TripBarometer, a December 2015 study conducted on behalf of TripAdvisor.

Along those same lines, other answers in the top 10 included “being able to learn something new on a trip,” at 67%, and “trying something new,” at 63%. 

That desire to experience something new—coupled with an ongoing interest in immersive, experiential travel—means that today’s travelers are always on the lookout for the newest and most interesting destinations. To that end, it’s no surprise that a trio of destinations have moved into the spotlight as emerging destinations close to home: Cuba, Costa Rica and Panama. 

With the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba, the island nation has jumped to the top of most lists of up-and-coming destinations: Members of USTOA (the United States Tour Operators Association) named Cuba the #1 emerging destination in late 2015, as did luxury travel advisor members of both Virtuoso and Travel Leaders Group in 2015 year-end surveys, to name just a few.  

In that same December 2015 Virtuoso survey, Costa Rica took the honors as the top adventure destination as well as the #4 family travel destination. And in a mid-2015 survey about millennial travelers conducted by Ensemble Travel Group, member agents named Costa Rica as one of the top three emerging destinations for millennials. 

When it comes to sheer growth, Panama tops the list. The isthmus nation was #1 in The Virtuoso Hot 10, with an amazing 107% growth in first-quarter bookings for 2016 compared to 2015.

Guiding the Experience 

While there are many similarities among the three destinations—most notably safety, proximity and the appeal of the unknown—there are also differences in the experiences, amenities and cultures that travelers will encounter. And while sometimes travelers come in asking for one of these destinations specifically, other times travel advisors need to point them out as a possibility.

“Sometimes when you start talking to people, it turns out that what they think they want and what they really want are two different things,” says Neelie Kruse, CTC, owner of Cary Travel Express, in Cary, IL. “Yesterday a guy came in asking about a particular Caribbean destination for a honeymoon. But he also said they wanted something ‘different.’ After really talking with him, I didn’t think that island would be best for their desires, so I recommended Costa Rica—and that’s what he booked. But if he had said they just wanted to lie on the beach, Costa Rica wouldn’t have been the right fit for them.” 

Advisors familiar with these destinations can also advise clients on their unexpected offerings. For example, the Panama Canal is certainly a major attraction in its own right, but a travel agent might want to discuss how easy it is to combine the canal with a Panama beach or adventure experience—possibly expanding, say, a four-day trip into an eight-day trip. 

On the flip side, sometimes travel advisors have to steer people away from a new destination if client expectations can’t meet reality. “Cuba is in the news so much and people hear that it’s opening up, so they’re interested. But we do get people who think they can go and lie on the beach for a week or just do their own thing, so we really have to explain what kind of vacation experience it is,” says Melissa Garrison, co-manager of the vacation and cruise department for St. Louis, MO-based Altair Travel.  

Diane Macedo, owner of The Travel Experience in Raynham, MA, is planning to host a Cuba event in her office to educate clients who have expressed interest in Cuba. “It’s a very different kind of travel from what most people are accustomed to,” says Macedo, who recently went on a people-to-people tour to Havana with Apple Vacations. “Cuba is very much a specialty market and people need to really understand what the experience is going to be like. I loved Cuba! But it’s not going to be for everyone.”

Here’s a look at traveler profiles and other key differentiators for Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba.

PANAMA

TRAVELER PROFILES: History Buffs, Active Vacationers, Eco-Tourists, Adventure Travelers

OVERVIEW: A narrow isthmus in Central America, Panama might be best known for the Panama Canal, but the country is also chock-full of unique adventures and activities that appeal to eco-tourists, adventure travelers and those seeking a vacation off the beaten path. “For people who have already traveled around the Caribbean and Mexico, Panama has so many interesting things to do,” says Kruse. “There’s the Panama Canal, of course, but also the rainforest, volcanoes, cultural tours in downtown Panama City and the beaches. We’ve sent active honeymoon couples, savvy travelers and people who are looking for a good value because the price is right there.”

Garrison also notes that Panama is appealing to families and incentive groups: “With the Panama Canal and the beaches so close by, it’s a great combination learning/relaxation experience. Plus there are all the adventure possibilities, so it’s perfect for people who are looking to get out and do. ”

CULTURAL HERITAGE: Connecting South and Central America, Panama has long been a crossroads for people and ideas. Today’s Panama is a mix of European, African and Caribbean influences, along with several indigenous cultures. Seven different indigenous groups make their home throughout the country, each with their own distinct language and culture—their influences touch everything from music and food to festivals and textiles, and some tours provide opportunities to meet people from these communities in their villages.

Since the U.S. ceded control of the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999, the country’s economy has remained strong and stable. While Spanish is the language of the land, English is widely spoken. Panama’s balboa currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar, and dollars are commonly accepted.  

TOURISM INFRASTRUCTURE: Expect a spate of news articles, publicity and travelers asking about Panama in June, when the Panama Canal celebrates the opening of its more than $5.2 billion expansion. The largest works project since the canal opened in 1914, the expansion makes this wonder of the modern world even more impressive, doubling its capacity and allowing for larger ships.

The canal’s setting in Panama City is equally impressive, with skyscrapers, brand-name hotels, world-class casinos and a bustling cosmopolitan feel befitting this Central American center of finance and industry. Here visitors will find everything from historic Spanish colonial architecture to Frank Gehry’s stunning new biodiversity museum, along with a host of well-known hotel chains, both mid-range and upscale.

Just a short distance from the city are the beaches that line the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, as well as several more remote islands. The beaches vary considerably, from calm turquoise waters to pounding waves ideal for surfing, and feature a number of brand-names hotels, such a Secrets, Riu, Sheraton, Westin and more, some all-inclusive. More than 35% of the country is protected land, offering up incredible adventures and biodiversity in vast jungles, rainforests, a cloud forest, whitewater rivers and more.

COSTA RICA

TRAVELER PROFILES: Eco-Tourists, Active Vacationers, Adventure Travelers

OVERVIEW: Just north of Panama, Costa Rica is the closest of the three to a traditional Caribbean vacation destination, with a plethora of all-inclusive and boutique beach resorts. Still, for many, the beach is only part of a Costa Rica vacation experience. The country boasts volcanoes, cloud forests and rivers winding through valleys. Plus, Costa Rica is home to 5% of the world’s known biodiversity and makes significant conservation efforts, with 26% of its land devoted to protected areas and a commitment to renewable energy—all very attractive to eco-tourists.  

“Costa Rica is ideal for people who don’t just want to sit on the beach—whether it’s a couple or a family or friends. It attracts people who want to go out and see and do,” says Sherry Norris, co-manager with Garrison of the vacation and cruise department for Altair Travel. “For eco-adventure, there’s a little more to do in Costa Rica than Panama—birding, wildlife, volcanoes, the rainforest, ziplines, whitewater rafting and so much more.”

CULTURAL HERITAGE: Costa Rica’s common greeting embodies the country’s spirit: It’s “Pura Vida,” which literally means “pure life,” but also encompasses the idea of living life to its fullest and enjoying every day. It’s used to say hello and goodbye, and also to express that all is good.  

Sometimes called the “Switzerland of Central America,” Costa Rica has no army, and is known for its political and economic stability as well as a higher standard of living than most countries in Central America. The official language is Spanish, although English is widely spoken, especially in the resorts. Costa Ricans call themselves “Ticos” and are primarily a multi-ethnic mix of Spanish, Afro-Caribbean and Amerindian heritages.  

TOURISM INFRASTRUCTURE: Guanacaste, in the northwest, is one of the most popular regions for tourism, served by the international airport in Liberia. From here, the Pacific beaches are easily accessible in less than an hour, sporting a number of modern all-inclusive resorts, such as Dreams Las Mareas, Secrets Papagayo, the Westin Playa Conchal, Riu Palace at Matapalo and more. The region is also well positioned for adventure tours to the Arenal Volcano, the Monteverde Cloud Forest and active options like ziplining, river rafting and thermal mud bathing, as well as eco delights like a Hummingbird Gallery and Butterfly Farm.  

On the more remote Caribbean side, usually accessed via the international airport in San Jose, travelers won’t find the large brand-name all-inclusives, but smaller, more rustic hotels and a handful of upscale boutique hotels, along with a more traditional Caribbean culture. Eco-focused highlights in the region include the rainforest, rich with sloths, monkeys, birds and incredible plant life; Tortuguero National Park, named after the turtles that nest there; and indigenous villages, medicinal botanical gardens, wildlife refuges and more. 


CUBA

TRAVELER PROFILES: Culturally Curious, Open-Minded, Experienced Travelers, Flexible Attitude

OVERVIEW: Since travel restrictions were eased to the island nation in early 2015, interest in Cuba has jumped. And the changes keep coming: In March, the Obama administration announced a further loosening of the rules, allowing individuals to travel to Cuba for “people-to-people” educational trips on their own in addition to organized group travel. Still, the rules for individuals require that Americans must plan a full schedule of activities that are “intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people's independence.”

“Cuba today isn’t for someone who just wants to flop on the beach,” says Tim Mullen, president of Apple Vacations. “It’s for someone who appreciates learning about a new culture, is flexible and open-minded. It’s for people who want to learn about the history, the architecture, the food, the cigars—and really engage with the people and the destination.”

CULTURAL HERITAGE: For Americans, the Cuban culture is exotic yet strangely familiar. Even with the country’s borders closed to Americans for more than 50 years, we’ve seen photo essays of the iconic 1950s cars; we dance to the rhythms of the rumba, mambo and salsa; we’ve heard tales of Cuban coffee and cigars. In some ways, the island feels quintessentially Caribbean, with its mix of Spanish and African heritages. Yet Cuba was also heavily influenced by the United States in the early part of the 20th century and then isolated from many foreign influences after the revolution—all mixing together for a culture that’s distinct among the Caribbean islands.

“I was most surprised by the friendliness of the Cubans,” says Macedo. “Whether it was a taxi driver, tour director or artist, they were welcoming and so glad to see the Americans. They were as curious about us as we were about them.” The people-to-people programs are designed to encourage just that kind of interaction, with opportunities to visit artists in their studios, tour buildings with architects, visit a tobacco farm and learn how to roll cigars, and much more.

TOURISM INFRASTRUCTURE: At the moment, there aren’t a lot of options for getting to Cuba since there is not yet commercial air service between the U.S. and Cuba; applications for scheduled air service are expected to be approved this summer, with as many as 30 scheduled flights a day eventually. In the meantime, charter flights with a tour operator or a cruise ship are currently the only ways to go directly from the U.S. to Cuba. The majority of flights arrive and depart from Havana.  

Hotels, too, are currently at a premium. Limited supply in the face of an expanding market and the fact that American GDSs don’t list Cuban hotels means travel agents are almost exclusively booking hotels with tour operators. Travel professionals also emphasize the need for setting expectations with clients. In Havana, for example, Mullen notes that most hotels are on the smaller side and the “level of service and resources are not on par with what travelers will find in other Caribbean resorts.” Varadero, however, features all-inclusive resorts with more familiar names, such as Iberostar and Melia.

Moving forward, chains like Marriott and Starwood have plans to open on the island, which will bring more room inventory, but could change the flavor of the travel experience. “Once it totally opens up, we’ll see construction for years to come, with every hotel company trying to get in,” says Kruse. “It will still be fabulous, but it will be different. Anyone who wants to see the true Cuba should see it now.”  


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