Capitalizing On Cuba
Cuba is just about the hottest thing going in the travel industry these days. There is really nothing to compare it to because it is unique in so many ways – and extremely attractive to American travelers who for decades have been prohibited by law from traveling there.
Until recently, Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest island, had been practically the only destination with such severe travel restrictions for Americans, the result of an embargo that had been in place since 1961. That barrier has made Cuba even more attractive and created a pent-up demand in its most concentrated form.
Cuba’s tourism assets are nothing if not plentiful. It features idyllic beaches, a rich culture, a fascinating history that is linked closely to American history, affable people, grand and historic architecture, enchanting music and dance, powerful works of art and delicious cuisine.
Also, since U.S. companies have been prohibited from doing business in Cuba, it is one of the few places in the world where you will not see the commercial overlay of such logos as Coca Cola, McDonalds and KFC. As a communist country, Cuba has remained outside the commercial world. So when you are in Cuba, the veneer of commercialism is conspicuously absent. The absence of commercial signage, combined with the prevalence of American cars from the 1950s, will make your clients feel as though they’ve gone back in time.
Despite President Barak Obama having set the country on the path toward normalization of relations with Cuba, he does not have the power to lift the embargo. Only Congress can remove it.
It was during President Bill Clinton’s administration that Congress reinforced the trade embargo, and yet at the same time the regulations against travel were relaxed through a policy known as “people-to-people travel,” a concept introduced under President Dwight Eisenhower for travel to the then Soviet Union. In the 1990s the Clinton administration revived the concept, enabling Americans to visit Cuba for cultural exchange.
Under the terms of the embargo, Americans were still strictly prohibited from spending U.S. dollars in Cuba during their travels there. A complex regimen was therefore put into place to regulate travel and control the money spent. Those regulations were administered under the Department of Commerce’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Americans were able to visit Cuba if they traveled with an approved tour operator who fulfilled the requirements of the U.S. government, including a schedule featuring personal encounters with Cubans.
For tour operators, fulfilling OFAC’s regulations was complicated. It required an immense amount of paperwork, going back and forth between government agencies, getting pre-approvals and keeping records for years of every peopleto-people encounter.
When the George W. Bush administration came into power, the people-to-people travel program was cut back again. But when President Obama took office in 2009, he began to loosen the regulations, and in December 2014 he began a concerted effort to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Since that time, travel restrictions have been unraveled piece by piece and travel to Cuba is about as close to free as it is going to get until Congress lifts the embargo. Now Cuba is more accessible to Americans than it has been in decades. With the pending U.S. election, there has been some uncertainty among potential investors in Cuba as to what future policies will be.
Although the loosening of travel has arguably made it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, it is still very challenging when it comes to traveling independently to the destination. Hotel capacity is extremely limited – and demand is skyrocketing. It is also difficult to find accommodations that are of the quality that American travelers expect.
The opening of the cruise market to Cuba provides some additional capacity. It also opens up new ways to experience Cuba, while eliminating concerns regarding quality accommodations. Two cruise lines on the forefront of the Cuba market are Celestyal Cruises and Fathom, Carnival Corp.’s newest cruise brand.
The 1,200-passenger Celestyal Crystal offers weeklong “Cruise Around Cuba” itineraries that embark from Montego Bay, Jamaica, with calls at Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Maria la Gorda and Cienfuegos before returning to Montego Bay. People-to-people requirements are met by shore excursions as well as lectures and presentations.
Fathom’s Adonia sails on alternating seven-night cruises to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The Cuba itinerary includes three and-a-half days of immersive shore excursions in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos.
Although it is now possible for individuals to travel to Cuba alone, American travelers are still legally required to maintain a full schedule of people-to-people experiences and keep records for five years.
It is much easier for travel agents to leave all these kinds of hassles to experienced tour operators, which over time have mastered these challenges.
Agents would be well served to study tour operator and cruise companies to ascertain which ones will provide experiences that suit their client’s specific vacation goals – and take the best care of them until they return home.
WHO TO BOOK
Travel agents will find that the portfolio of companies offering Cuba programs is now quite large. Below is a selection of tour operators and cruise lines to consider.
Abercrombie and Kent 800-554-7094, www.abercrombiekent.com
Alexander + Roberts 800-221-2216 www.alexanderroberts.com
Apple Vacations 800-727-3400, www.applevacations.com
Austin Adventures 800-575-1540, www.austinlehman.com
Celestyal Cruises 877-337-4665, celestyalcruises.com/en
Central Holidays 800-539-7098, www.centralholidays.com
Collette 800-717-9191, www.gocollette.com
Cox & Kings, The Americas 800-999-1758, www.coxandkingsusa.com
Cuba Travel Network 800-282-2468, www.cuba-travel.com
Fathom 855-932-8466, www.fathom.org
Friendly Planet Travel 888-940-8260, www.friendlyplanet.com
Group IST 800-833-2111, www.groupist.com
Insight Cuba 800-450-2822, www.insightcuba.com
International Expeditions 800-633-4734, www.ietravel.com
Intrepid Travel 800-558-2522, www.intrepidtravel.com
Latour 800-825-0825, www.latour.com
Lindblad Expeditions 800- 397-3348, www.expeditions.com
Mayflower Tours 800-323-7604, www.mayflowertours.com
Tauck 800-468-2825, www.tauck.com
Travcoa 800-992-2005, www.travcoa.com
Ya’lla Tours 800-644-1595, www.yallatours.com
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A version of this article appears in print in the June 2016 issue of Agent@Home Magazine.
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