As interest in travel to Cuba surges, tour operators are
adding departures, introducing new programs and extending itineraries to keep
up with the demand.
The groundswell began with President Obama’s Dec. 17
announcement that the U.S. and Cuba planned to renew diplomatic ties and to
ease travel restrictions.
While the easing of restrictions does not allow for actual
tourism, it has become easier for Americans to visit Cuba for any of a dozen
authorized reasons without first obtaining a license from the U.S. government.
Americans are still supposed to engage in purposeful travel
with an educational and/or cultural slant. However, they can now bring back
$400 worth of souvenirs, including $100 worth of cigars and rum.
At some point, U.S. visitors will be able to swipe their
credit and debit cards, but for now, they must still carry cash.
Visitor numbers show growing demand. Cuba’s overall international visitor numbers through March
21 topped 1 million, up 14% over the same period in 2014, according to the
country’s Ministry of Tourism. Visitors from Canada, Germany, France, the U.K.
and Italy led arrivals.
Although a breakdown of U.S. visitor figures was not available
last week, a ministry statement reported: “The number of U.S. visitors grew by
29.5% in the same period, due to a more flexible interpretation of the 12
categories for travel licenses authorized by the U.S. government, which
continues to maintain its blockade of Cuba.”
Cuba welcomed 3 million visitors in 2014, a record year,
which represented a 5.3% jump over 2013. That figure did not include hundreds
of thousands of Cuban-Americans who traveled to the island to visit relatives.
In the Caribbean region, only the Dominican Republic’s 5.1
million visitors surpassed Cuba in 2014.
While cruise arrivals are still in their infancy in Cuba,
more than 3,900 passengers arrived by ship in January, according to Cuba’s
Office of National Statistics.
Canada-based Cuba Cruise is marketing sea voyages directly
Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, a company that has
offered people-to-people programs since 2000, said, “Demand for Cuba is spiking
beyond expectations. The cycle just keeps growing. In the three months since
the Obama announcement, we have doubled and tripled our numbers. We do 125 to
130 group departures in a typical year; we’re beyond 170 now and looking at 184
A key reason for that
growth, he said, is that “people want to go before it changes.”
Popper was in Cuba in late February and said he had never
seen Havana so crowded.
“Hotels were full,” he said. “There was excitement on the
street. It was palpable. Cubans are catching on that if they provide good
service, tourists are happy and tip.”
He also saw some changes. For example, “Taxi fares have gone up. Now we have to
negotiate fares. In the past, it was a flat rate from point to point.
Restaurants were full, and reservations at the family-run paladores were hard
to come by.”
Also, he said, “Hotel space and knowledgeable Cuban guides
are in short supply.”
Popper said he hoped the Summit of the Americas in Panama on
April 10 and 11, which Obama will attend, will result in more positive news
from the White House.
This year, travel to Cuba already has exceeded Isramworld’s
expectations, according to Richard Krieger, president: “We’re 20% to 30% higher
than anticipated. There’s an urgency on the part of travelers to visit before
it changes, according to feedback from our clients, who want to go before Pizza
Huts are on every corner.”
Isramworld is adding more departures for next fall and
winter, and it is tweaking its seven-day Hello Cuba programs to fit specific
interest groups, such as the gay community, photographers and history buffs.
When Travel Leaders Group polled several of its agents about
booking levels to Cuba, all reported an increase in demand.
Sharon Concepcion, manager of Protravel International in
Miami, said, “Most people want to know which hotel chains will be in Cuba and
when they will open. Our clients and travel advisers are curious about the
facilities, independent travel and when general tourism will really be open.”
Many travelers want to visit on their own and not go through
a tour operator.
Michelle Weller, director of operations for Travel Leaders
in Houston, said that Cuba is a topic of conversation, and clients want to go
before it is modernized, but they also want less restrictive itineraries.
“When Cuba can offer an atmosphere where Americans can hang
out at all-inclusives and smoke Cuban cigars at Ernest Hemingway haunts, you
will see a massive wave of tourists flood the country,” she said.
Debby Carstensen, manager of Protravel International in Boca
Raton, Fla., agreed that “clients do not want to be held to the restrictions
that are still in place. They prefer independent travel and are not interested
in a group tour and a regimented schedule.”
Group IST added more sailing dates on the Panorama this
month and said it might put on an additional small ship doing another Cuba
“Prospects look excellent for 2016,” said Naomi Kabak, IST’s
senior vice president.
Earlier this year, Abercrombie & Kent announced five
additional departures on its 10-day Cuba tour and another departure on its
“Although restrictions are being eased, travelers recognize
that their most rewarding option during the transition period is an established
people-to-people program,” an A&K representative said.
Ya’lla Tours USA has seen an increase of more than 150% in
demand for Cuba, so it added departures for this fall, according to Ronen
“However, with all that tremendous demand, the
infrastructure has not changed,” Paldi said. “No new hotel rooms, tour buses or
He also noted that rates are rising: “We are seeing a price
increase of almost 40% since the beginning of the year. Travel agents need to
be prepared to pay a higher rate for any new bookings … than they paid in
Wilderness Travel has added four extra departures to its
2015 schedule, according to Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new-trip
Collette offers one 10-day itinerary and manages demand by
increasing the number of departures, according to Paula Twidale, executive vice
However, Craig Smith, senior director of marketing for
People to People Ambassador Programs, cautioned that “there seems to be a lot
of confusion still.”
“Most of the people inquiring about our programs believe they
can now book a vacation to Cuba, which is not true,” Smith said.