Last updated: 09:17 AM ET, Wed November 30 2016

After Fidel, Tour Operators Hope for a New Beginning with Cuba

Tour Operator David Cogswell November 29, 2016

After Fidel, Tour Operators Hope for a New Beginning with Cuba

Whether you loved him or hated him, or in the rare case that you were neutral about him, Fidel Castro’s passing marks the end of a long era, dating back to 1959 when he first took over the leadership of Cuba during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. For tour operators, many of whom have customers traveling in Cuba now, it adds a new element of uncertainty, as well as an element of hope.

"Clearly, this is a historic time for both Cuba and Cuban Americans," said Steve Born, vice president of marketing of the Globus family of brands. "In terms of our Globus and Cosmos Cuba operation, our travelers who visit during their period of mourning will have the chance to hear from Cuban people their thoughts on the passing of their long-time leader, giving them a first-hand account of history."

But as wonderful as the experience may be for American travelers in Cuba now, Globus and other tour operators don't even know for sure if they are going to be able to continue doing business in Cuba after the new president takes office.

Before Castro’s death over the weekend, American tour operators who operate trips to Cuba were already facing the uncertainty of a change in U.S. presidents next January. Obama, who reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba after a half century and significantly reduced travel barriers, will be succeeded by Trump, who has promised to roll back Obama’s executive actions that opened trade to Cuba. Now the death of Fidel Castro adds another element of uncertainty.

“As with our presidential election, I am convinced there is no crystal ball that is going to tell us what the future holds,” said Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “There is so much up in the air right now and so many factors to consider, predicting anything is a mistake. One must take a wait and see approach. Plan to have a plan B, and enjoy the adventures in Cuba as they stand today, not knowing how long [it will last] or what might change.”

For many both in the tourism industry and outside it, the passing of Fidel Castro provides hope for a new era of peaceful relations between the two neighboring countries, whose governments have been pitted against each other since the early days of the Castro regime.

READ MORE: How Easy Is It to Travel to Cuba?

“Every country in the world has relations with Cuba, except the United States,” said John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours. “No matter if one feels negatively or positively about the passing of Fidel Castro, we can only hope that this will facilitate a more convenient path to détente between the US and Cuba.”

Though Fidel stepped down in 2006 and let executive power pass to his younger brother Raul (who officially became president in 2008), Fidel’s passing will still have powerful political ramifications. Raul, who has liberalized Cuba’s socialism and lifted many restrictions on private businesses, is set to retire in 2018.

For many in the generation of the first exiles of Castro’s Cuba, the passing from power of the two Castros will mark a watershed moment when they can bury the hatchet and mark the beginning of a new post-Castro period. For many of the younger generations of Cuban exile families, the bitterness that colored their parents’ and grandparents’ lives is already ancient history and they are ready to move on.

For the incoming President Trump, Fidel Castro’s death may provide a way for him to back away from his campaign promises to reverse Obama’s opening of Cuba. Fulfilling the promise to “reverse Obama’s Executive Orders and concessions towards Cuba until freedoms are restored” would put Trump, a pro-business candidate, in the sticky situation of having to curtail business activities of major tourism businesses, such as airlines and hotel companies, that have already started operations in Cuba.

With Fidel Castro gone, Trump may be able to negotiate some kind of symbolic concessions from the Cuban government that would allow him to say that “freedoms are restored” and therefore business between U.S. and Cuba may continue. But no one knows for sure what Trump will actually do once he takes office.  

For tour operators, regardless of the ups and downs of U.S. government policy towards Cuba, what remains constant is that the experience of visiting Cuba is a fascinating and rich experience. The death of Fidel Castro is another unique historical moment affecting the experience of those who visit Cuba.

“Cuba is currently in a state of mourning,” said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba. “Generations of Cubans only know of life with Fidel and now they will have his memory and his legacy to build on. While Fidel fully transitioned the power of the Presidency to his brother Raul in 2008, Cuba has been planning for another transition of power in 2018 when Raul plans to step down. Both the 2008 transition of power and the passing of Fidel have been peaceful. While Cubans reflect on the past and present regarding Fidel’s death, they also ponder their future with renewed relations with the United States and the opportunities ahead. These are historic times for both the U.S. and Cuba, and traveling to this amazing country still remains a special opportunity that any American should seize.”

Americans in Cuba can get a sense for themselves how the Cubans feel about all these issues.

“Other than the normal condolences that one has with the death of a person, I can quote what many Cubans said in the streets about the passing of Fidel as an opportunity for positive changes in Cuba, inspiring a lot of hope,” said Ronen Paldi, president of Ya'lla Tours USA. “We have many passengers in Cuba right now, they all continue with the travel plans (other than visiting any musical shows that are shut down during the mourning period.) As for the future of travel to Cuba, it depends more on the new Trump administration than on the Cubans.”

READ MORE: How Is US Tourism Changing Cuba?

Hopes for improved relations continue to run high with tour operators.

“Putting aside the love, rancor and all emotions in between that Fidel Castro, over many decades, has elicited from people in the US and in Cuba itself, it is clear that without Fidel’s approval, the thousands of Americans who have visited Cuba and gotten to know the Cuban people could not have had that opportunity,” said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet. “We are hopeful that with his passing, those who lead the country will find a way to make it easier for all of us, Cubans and Americans, to get to know each other better, interact more freely, and continue on the path to normalizing relations between our two countries.”

“We have travelers in Havana now and more on their way this week.  What an interesting time to be there!” said Steve Cox, executive director of International Expeditions.

“Our programs live up to the spirit and letter of the People to People category and as such we have almost continuous interaction with Cuban people from all walks of life. What we are hearing today from these interactions is primarily a look to the future and not so much remembering the past under Fidel. Some expressed a hope that President Elect Trump will let go of the past as the Cuban people are letting go of the past under Fidel.  For sure it is a new era that can begin now if we will let it.”