Cuba, a few years ago one of the hottest destinations in the Caribbean, has been quiet recently as pandemic-era rules and U.S. regulations have curtailed travel there.
But as operators ready their 2022 programs for Americans, optimism is high -- though not without its caveats.
Friendly Planet and InsightCuba, which specialize in legal travel itineraries to Cuba, are gearing up to restart operations in March, their first time back in two years. Friendly Planet founder and president Peggy Goldman said earlier this month that although the company has not yet started promotional efforts in earnest for Cuba, it is seeing a "small number of bookings" each week.
Goldman is planning a reconnaissance mission to Cuba to check in with accommodations and make sure things are ready for travelers.
"Assuming everything is in order and we're satisfied with our inspection, we are ready to begin operating tours to Cuba in March," Goldman said. "In fact, we can't wait.
"Once we begin our marketing programs, I have no doubt bookings for Cuba will begin to build as they always have in past years."
Vaccines and optimism
Cuba is the second-most vaccinated country in the world, behind the United Arab Emirates, with 92% of people who have received at least one dose of the country's vaccines as of Dec. 26, according to Reuters. The island nation of some 11 million people created five vaccines, two of which, Abdala and Soberana, have been sold abroad to several countries, including Vietnam, and are awaiting World Health Organization approval for further use.
Kids at the Pre School for Disadvantaged Youth in Old Havana. Photo Credit: Cultural Cuba
According to Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, since the first case of omicron was detected on Dec. 8, Cuba's Ministry of Public Health has accelerated the process of administering booster shots on the island.
Optimism for Cuba travel remains strong among travel industry experts. That's because at this point, 21 months into the pandemic, there are now two kinds of people emerging from the continuous disappointment of canceled plans: those resigning themselves to just stay home and those powering through their travel plans, albeit with caution.
It's the latter category mostly coming across the desk of David Lee, owner and founder of Cultural Cuba, a destination management company that provides private luxury travel itineraries to Cuba. The company is seeing tourism interest, and bookings, on the rise again following Cuba's reopening of its borders Nov. 15.
"We've already had some clients there. It's still a trickle," Lee said. He added that he was surprised by the number of bookings coming in so shortly after the country's reopening. "We had many more coming over New Year's, and things are starting to happen. Is it as fast as we would like? No. This omicron thing hasn't helped."
Protocols and plans
Most U.S. travelers abide by the Support for Cuban People license, which requires a busy schedule of cultural and educational touring and regular contact with Cubans. American tourists are unable to stay at the island's sun-and-fun beach destinations, where they might naturally socially distance.
But operators pointed to the high vaccination rates and stringent mask mandates as among the reasons why interest is up. The island this month tightened entry requirements and now is requiring that visitors age 13 and up show proof of vaccination; they also must produce a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of arrival (children 12 and under are exempt).
And operators have chosen to set safety rules of their own for clients.
Friendly Planet and InsightCuba only accept fully vaccinated and boosted guests, while Cultural Cuba includes medical insurance with every traveler's airfare. That insurance provides full coverage should travelers test positive for Covid and includes full room, board and medical care in a special clinic for foreigners.