Last updated: 04:15 PM ET, Tue July 05 2016

The Cuba Connection

As Europe bookings wane, Central Holidays witnesses strong demand for its Cuba programs

Vacation Agent | Tour Operator | David Cogswell

The Cuba Connection

[PHOTOCAPTION]Photo courtesy of the Cuba Tourist Board.[/PHOTOCAPTION]

So far, 2016 has not been easy for European tour operators. High-profile terrorist attacks in late 2015 have resulted in many Americans shying away from Europe. But for Central Holidays, whose mainstay business is Europe, there is a solution to be found much closer to U.S. shores: Cuba

“The last year and a half has not been as good as expected,” says Gianni Miradoli, CEO of Central Holidays. “But 2017 seems to be a much better year, if things calm down and we don’t have any more trouble. But for us this year, the biggest hit has been Cuba.”

As Americans look for ways to dig deeper into the country, Central Holidays is witnessing strong demand for its programs.

“Our most popular programs have been ‘Afro Cubanismo,’ which offers a discovery of the African American culture in Cuba, and ‘L’Chaim Cuba,’ which looks at Jewish culture in Cuba,” says Miradoli. The company is at the forefront of the Cuba cruise scene, selling two of the country’s first cruise products, Celestyal Cruises’ sailings and Carnival’s Fathom itineraries.

Celestyal has been selling Cuba since 2013, primarily to Europeans and Canadians. It opened the sailings to the American market this past winter season.

Demand is high and the cruise will expand from operating three months of the year, as it did initially, to operating on a year-round basis.

Celestyal’s weeklong “Cruise Around Cuba” itinerary embarks from Montego Bay, Jamaica, aboard the 1,200-passenger Celestyal Crystal.

Previously, the ship divided its time between Europe in the summers and Cuba in the winters, but next year it will devote the entire year to Cuba sailings.

The itinerary 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 on board – and by the fact that many Cubans are employed as part of the ship’s crew.

Using ships for accommodations helps circumvent problems posed by the lack of hotel capacity in Cuba. “This is very important because Cuba is running into a very complicated situation with hotel accommodations. A major problem for tour operators is securing space in Cuba. Cuba doesn’t have enough infrastructure to accommodate all the requests,” says Miradoli. “This is a challenge we have to face, but luckily we have enough space available until June 2017. We are in a better situation in the marketplace than most other suppliers. But also there are [other] issues because in Cuba they are talking about raising prices 30, 40 or 50 percent.”

Meanwhile, the company is moving forward on other destination fronts, including the expansion of its Latin America and North America group programs.

“We are building our domestic programs,” says Miradoli. “Some of them are the normal big attractions of the U.S., like Hawaii, the West Coast, the national parks, the Northeast foliage, but there are also some very special programs, such as cruising on the big rivers, the Rocky Mountain trains and other programs that are a little bit out of the normal path.”

The domestic programs offer the company some insurance against the current fears surrounding travel to Europe. “It’s not only the terrorism. It’s also the media coverage of the immigration situation,” says Miradoli. “There is really nothing to be concerned about with immigration, but people who don’t know the local situation will often change their destination when they hear something happens.”

Miradoli notes that many Central Holidays customers have shifted their Europe travel plans to Latin America, including Cuba, Costa Rica, the Galapagos and Peru.

“We have to be absolutely ready to cover any situation with the right program,” he says. “We need to offer different possibilities and follow the request of our clients.”

For more information, visit Central Holidays at

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Vacation Agent Magazine

A version of this article appears in print in the June 2016 issue of Vacation Agent Magazine.