Last updated: 11:06 AM ET, Mon April 25 2016

Where Cuban Cruises Began: Group IST CEO Michael Goren

Cruise Line & Cruise Ship | Jason Leppert | April 25, 2016

Where Cuban Cruises Began: Group IST CEO Michael Goren

Photo by David Cogswell

Cuban cruises are now squarely in the spotlight, particularly those planned by Carnival Corporation for its new Fathom brand, but Group IST actually led the way with its sailings since 2013. And I had the chance to talk with the specialty travel company’s CEO Michael Goren all about its past, present and future in the region.

During our talk, Goren reflected on coming up with the idea to offer people-to-people cultural sailings aboard a mega-yacht in Cuba and the more than two years it took to originally get the U.S. approval. Now his company deploys the S/C Panorama and S/C Panorama II there with the third M/Y Variety Voyager ready to join in November 2016. "When president Obama came with the [recent] change of the U.S. policy and also president Castro in Cuba, I [had] already been with my boat in Cuba," Goren said.

While the new political atmosphere has opened the door for companies like Fathom to get Cuban approval to sail from Miami to Cuba, Group IST thinks it’s better to focus exclusively on the Caribbean island nation. He believes it’s a waste to spend about two days to sail there from Florida, adding, “the big boats are a bit faster, and they don’t have so many locations they can visit in Cuba.”

He says larger ships are limited on where they can go because the facilities to support them are lacking. “In fact, their infrastructure for the big boat is ridiculous,” Goren says. “You can get with [a] small boat [to] the very small local communities…[and] small docking area[s] because we might use our zodiac to do a wet landing. This is not something you can do with [a] big boat. [A] big boat need[s] a port. In Cuba, they don’t have so many of those. Cuba is a big island, and there are many many places which you can get with [a] small boat but not in a big boat. So, it’s a very different type of operation and product.”

READ MORE: Cruise Lines Hit Bumpy Waters In Cuban Cruise Approvals

While Fathom plans to sail roundtrip from Miami to Cuba, in more of a traditional Caribbean cruise fashion, Group IST spends a whole week in Cuba, with its guests flying in and joining the vessel there. He says, “all in all, it’s a program that really gives you a chance to immerse, to sense, the Cuban culture…We don’t need to go far away to do the different activities of people-to-people or to enjoy the real life of Havana, the music, art, culture.”

Goren adds, “that’s the benefit of being on a small boat: A, that you can have your exclusive group on the boat and, B, that the small boat [can get] to the area where the big boats can’t get. And of course the ability to really see the culture and the destination where you don’t have another 1,000 or more passengers with you that change the entire environment.”

Even for a small operator, there are still hurdles to overcome. “Cuba is still [a] major challenge to accommodate the demand, but it’s very tricky,” he says. “It’s getting to be even more difficult because of the demand.” For Group IST, the biggest difficulty is airfare. While it’s only about a 40 minute flight from Miami to Havana, the airport facilities and services are not in place for efficient turnarounds, and huge delays are not uncommon. Its guests are encouraged to fly into Miami the night before and spend another night there afterwards to help alleviate such inbound and outbound issues. "Eventually you get there," he said. "But the question is when.”

“People want to be in Cuba as it is right now, but as it is right now it’s very challenging. So, folks have to tolerate some of the logistical nightmare. It’s out of hand,” he said. “If Cuba change[s] and become[s] more like us then it’s not going to be what people expect to see from Cuba.”

READ MORE: Celestyal Cruises Takes US Travelers to Cuba

As it is now, guests can take a deep dive into Cuban culture, including two days in Havana with the vessel docked in a prime location right in front of San Francisco Square, for instance. They can enjoy the people, art and music – from classical to the Buena Vista Social Club – and long bus rides are never required to reach the destinations.

Versus larger competitors, Goren said, “[you] can’t compare it: I mean our mega-yacht takes about 48, and our biggest one takes 72…In our type of operation, let’s really focus on the island, on Cuba. There are so many places to visit and to see…We have the experience, the knowledge and the knowhow, and we continue with our product.”

Onboard, he said it’s, “like a small community.” The Group IST experience is that of a private yacht, each vessel with its own character. Dining is also a fine mix of eating onboard and off with a controlled product that features fresh seafood. The yachts are publicly available to individuals, groups and charters, including National Geographic ones, and Group IST works with major tour operators, travel agents and not-for-profit organizations.

In the future, Goren hopes Cuba will improve its flight infrastructure and open up more docking and landing areas, but is mindful of the reality that the Cubans are protective of their ways. He said, “they have their own system, and we have our system. We are not here to impose our system on them. We have to go around what they have and they offer us, and sometimes we want to see [it go] much faster because this is our attitude and our lifestyle. But we have to be patient.”

Either way, it’s an exciting time as Goren remembers being in Cuba when President Obama was: “It was unbelievable…The church bell had been ringing, and people [had] been beside themselves. Talking about the Cubans, they’d been so beside themselves, so happy.”

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