Last updated: 07:00 PM ET, Fri October 28 2016

Are Security Fears Keeping Americans from Cuba?

Tour Operator David Cogswell October 28, 2016

Are Security Fears Keeping Americans from Cuba?

Photo by David Cogswell

The Cuba Travel Network, an Amsterdam-based company that has been taking travelers to Cuba for 14 years, did some market research to try to understand how Americans feel about safety and security while traveling in Cuba. The research revealed some fundamental concerns any company marketing travel to Cuba must face.

Americans have an exaggerated picture of the dangers of traveling in Cuba.

The company did its surveys of the market through Google Surveys, a platform that enables users to segment the population based on almost any demographic data.  

“Google obviously has an incredible audience size,” said Eddie Lubbers, CEO of Cuba Travel Network, “and it can specifically segment it in practically any way you would want.”

The company defined its sample based on its target audience of couples and families. It did not focus on millennials in general but did target Hispanic millennials. It did not focus on seniors specifically. Its main age demographic is 35 to 50. And it focused on families with an income of $100,000 annually or more who travel more than twice a year.

The company sampled 2,307 people in New York, California, Florida and Texas.

One of the key questions was on safety.

“We wanted to focus on that concern as Cuba is becoming, within the Caribbean, a major destination for American travelers. What we found is that 40 percent of Americans were not interested in travel to Cuba because of safety concerns. Another 25 percent are less interested in Cuba because they are not sure of the legal side of it. These concerns don’t apply to Cancun and Punta Cana.”

It showed the company the work that is cut out for it if it wants to sell Cuba to Americans.

“It means,” said Lubbers, “that in regard to that 40 percent we still have to educate them that Cuba is probably safest destination in the entire hemisphere, that is, compared with all South and Central American destinations, except possibly Costa Rica. Cuba is safer even compared to the U.S. and Canada.”

Whatever criticisms an American may have of Cuba, security is not legitimately one of them.

“The government would say, ‘We are pre-emptive,’” said Lubbers. “They have a lot of uniforms on the streets and they have very harsh policing strategies for their own people. As a tourist, it translates into a safe environment. In general, there is no violence. There are no guns. There is huge respect among the people for the uniformed class.”

That includes Havana, Cuba’s most concentrated urban environment.

“It’s interesting,” said Lubbers. “A resort destination even in Mexico or the Dominican Republic is safer than the cities. But in Cuba, even the cities are safe. A tourist can wander streets and not have to take off their jewelry or camera. It’s not that we would not recommend to people to be cautious, but you don’t have to be constantly alert, as in some places.”

There is even less chance of problems outside of Havana.

“As soon as go into the secondary cities, such as Santiago and Cienfuegos, there is very little petty crime, little general crime,” said Lubbers.

But as Cuba is changing so rapidly with an influx of tourists and tourist money, will the security situation change? Lubbers thinks not.

“The Cuban government is very aware that that is a competitive advantage they have and need to keep,” he said.  

The market research will not cause the company to alter any of its itineraries, but it will affect its marketing strategies.

“In terms of future itineraries, we don’t have a need to adjust anything,” said Lubbers. “In another destination, we might have to deal with drug cartels or social unrest. But the key finding is that 40 percent have a perception of Cuba in terms of safety that is not justified.

“What we as travel company need to do is communicate better.”