With surge in Cuba interest, tour operators add departures

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The Old Havana section of the capital. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

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 to Americans.

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 in 2016.”

 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 itinerary.

“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 longer program.

“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 Paldi, president.

“However, with all that tremendous demand, the infrastructure has not changed,” Paldi said. “No new hotel rooms, tour buses or tour guides.”

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 2014.”

Wilderness Travel has added four extra departures to its 2015 schedule, according to Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new-trip development.

Collette offers one 10-day itinerary and manages demand by increasing the number of departures, according to Paula Twidale, executive vice president.

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.

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