Last updated: 10:38 PM ET, Fri October 07 2016

Individual Travel in Cuba Comes of Age

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | May 23, 2016

Individual Travel in Cuba Comes of Age

Photo by David Cogswell

The Cuba Travel Network has been taking individual travelers into Cuba since 2002 from various European countries, such as the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany.  It was not permissible to take individuals from the U.S. until President Obama loosened regulations. The U.S. embargo of Cuba is still in place, and the restrictions under the law are still as hard for a layman to sort out as it might be to translate the unearthed tracts of some ancient religion.

But simply put, through a series of modifications via executive order, President Obama loosened the travel restrictions and making it possible now for American individuals to travel on their own to Cuba. Now that restrictionsi are s no longer in place for Americans, the Cuba Travel Network has made its individual travel programs available to American travelers.

“We have specialized in individual travel to Cuba for 14 years,” said Eddie Lubbers, Cuba Travel Network’s CEO. “We have been established in Havana since 2002, organizing individual itineraries to Cuba from the whole world. We handle about 100,000 individuals per year. With the changing regulations introduced in the U.S., we now  do this from the U.S.  Around September of 2015  we started offering our tours in the U.S. market. In March of this year,  a particular category within the 12 categories of permissible travel, expanded which allowed  for individual travel to Cuba for the people to people category.”

Through its years of experience with thousands of travelers, the company has put together a series of packages based on special interests in such subjects as culture, music, history, art, nightlife, cocktails and spirits, flora and fauna, Ernest Hemingway, honeymoons, the underground music dance scene, Spanish language immersion or various other subjects. Individual travelers can select from packages that have been offered before, or can take parts of each and modify them to their own preferences.

Besides an assortment of tours that are headquartered in Havana, the company also offers tours out into the country beyond Havana, including an eight-day tour of western Cuba.

Although Cuba’s limited hotel capacity has quickly been absorbed by the increase in demand, Lubbers said the company is not concerned with shortages in accommodations.

“Having been on the ground for 14 years, we are the leading online travel company to Cuba,” said Lubbers. “We have deep relationships with suppliers, especially the hotels that are in demand by Americans in Viñales, Trinidad or Old Havana. We have larger allotments than other tour operators. In 2015 when nobody supposedly could get rooms, we grew our accommodations by 50 percent. And we are still growing rapidly. It’s all on the basis of a longstanding presence. For us, accommodation has not been too much of an issue.”

Because of skyrocketing demand, hotel prices are inevitably heading upwards this summer. But the increase in demand is also being partly absorbed by a change in seasonality.

“The seasonality has changed,” said Lubbers. “May and June and September and October would have been the low season. Now they are just as strong as the high season. Even in summer the demand is still there.”

Meanwhile, the increase in demand is also fueling development, and the face of the island is changing rapidly day by day. “In terms of product offering there is huge new development in the private sector,” said Lubbers. “Quality restaurants are opening. It has been happening for years, but now it’s really coming into its own. Also, the vintage car fleet has increased tenfold in three years. They are iconic. I call them the gondolas of Havana, as in Venice.”  

Private inns are also growing.

“The number of casa particulares grew in 2015 from 14,000 to 18,000, and we now have them in destinations such as Viñales and Trinidad, where there are more private accommodations than state accommodations being offered. They have filled a gap. You also see a similar thing happening with the restaurants.  Some of the casas are becoming re- designed like little boutiques and hotels.  They are looking like privately owned bed-and-breakfasts. You have up to 10 rooms in some of these places and the quality is rapidly improving.”

READ MORE: Cuba Plans for Hotel Boom

Cuba Travel Network offers tours in three categories, including flexible tours, which are pre-set itineraries but can be modified; fully guided private tours and special interest tours.

Prices are moderate. A seven-day/six-night Salsa Tour is priced from $955 per person, not including air or the cost of dance lessons. A seven-night/eight-day Jeep tour Off the Beaten Track, priced from $1,440 per person, covers a lot of territory, including Varadero, Rio Canimar, Ciénaga de Zapata Cienfuegos, Cumanayagua, El Nicho, Topes de Collantes, Guanayara, Topes de Collantes, Sancti Spiritus, Meneses, Yaguajay, Caguanes and Remedios.

Ultimate Havana, a five-day/four-night tour is priced from $893, not including air. The program includes a basic itinerary of activities, such as a private tour of Havana in a vintage car, a trip to Hemingway’s house in Finca Vigia and a visit to an artist community in the village of Las Terrazas, with many choices of optional activities, such as a visit to the Tropicana and a visit to Fábrica del Arte Cubano (the Cuban Art Factory).

Any of the off-the-shelf programs can be used as a basis for a custom itinerary or modified to suit the customer. The company has a staff of 60 in Havana and representatives throughout the island and is well-equipped to put in place the kinds of things requested by incoming travelers.

The company is based in Havana, privately owned, and has a sales office in Amsterdam and another in Brooklyn, as well as a representative in Newcastle, Australia.

The increased demand from the U.S. has also stimulated increased demand from the rest of the world.

READ MORE: Can Cuba Keep Up With US Tourism?

“All the dynamics of the past year have had a huge effect also on other markets, the European markets for example,” said Lubbers. “There has been a lot of collateral demand. The UK, Gemany, Italy and the Netherlands are all up in double digits, not triple digits like the US, but double digits. In some cases that’s because of increased air flight out of Germany or the Netherlands. It’s very much like a domino effect.”

Now that presidential candidates Cruz and Rubio are out of the race, both of Cuban ancestry and both of whom declared that they would roll back the opening of Cuba if elected, American investors are less jittery about investing in a market that could be pulled out from under them.

“Trump said he approved of the opening,” said Lubbers. “Even a month ago when Cruz was still a prospect there was more uncertainty. Now with Cruz dropping out, it will reflect in the momentum. Cubans are more sure now when dealing with the American corporate sector. The challenges now are not so much political as operational. I think U.S. corporate interests such as Expedia and Priceline are just finding it difficult to come into a market where demand is already outstripping supply and Cuba has already committed to long-established operators already. So they’re coming in at the end of the line. The caution may come from Cuba as well as the U.S. It’s unfamiliar terrain.”

As for the change in Cuba that much of the world seems to dread, Lubbers is extremely optimistic.

“I’m confident that Cuba has very much its own identity,” said Lubbers, “especially on top of 55 years of being subject to the Cuban embargo. I think Old Havana is a really good example of autonomous development. There is huge room for authentic Cuban products to be developed.”

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