Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Wed April 27 2016

Tour Insights: Cuba Fever in the USA

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | April 27, 2016

Tour Insights: Cuba Fever in the USA

After spending the week encircling Cuba on the Celestyal Crystal, I returned to America and it feels like Cuba has followed me home. Cuba is everywhere. The ongoing explosion of interest in Cuba has jumped up to a new level of intensity after Obama’s historic visit to Havana a few weeks ago, with new cruises and tours coming into the market on an almost-daily basis and plenty of news and controversy filling the Internet every day.

Now as the regulations have loosened, the subject of Cuba tourism has jumped categories and is no longer just about tours. Now cruises are getting into the game. With Celestyal, Fathom and Carnival putting Cuba cruises on the American market, the introduction of new cruise offerings is moving rapidly from a trickle to a torrent.

However, although ships are employed for transportation and accommodation, as long as the people to people requirements remain in place, the trips to Cuba are still tours, even though they may use ships for traveling.

I took my trip with Celestyal Cruises last week through the tour operator Central Holidays, which has a partnership with Celestyal. Though it travels by ship, the cruise still operates under the regimen of people to people tours as defined by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The operators of the cruises are required to follow the same rules as land operators in keeping a full schedule of people to people encounters and keeping records of them. So for now, I am still calling these programs tours.

READ MORE: Trinidad, Last Stop in Cuba

A cursory glance at the TravelPulse homepage will give plenty of evidence that things are happening in virtually every theater of activity in regard to the boom in travel to Cuba.

Cruise ships as accommodations have a special advantage in Cuba, where the demand has exploded and the accommodation infrastructure has not had a chance to catch up. In other words, the capacity falls far short of the demand, and ships are a way to solve that problem.  

Individuals can now travel to Cuba independently too, but they must also, by law, keep records of their people to people activities for five years if the U.S. Treasury Department asks for them. It’s still pretty challenging to make these kinds of arrangements as an individual. It’s much easier to have the backing of a tour operator who has been working the destination for years and knows how to operate there.

Last week saw the drama of Carnival negotiating with Cuban authorities over the issue of whether the cruise line can carry Cuban exiles back to Cuba. The resolution of that conflict was historic in itself. It shows how business can make progress in areas where politicians have failed. And it provides a great deal of hope for the future prospects of the opening relationship between Cuba and America.

My trip on Celestyal Cruises was introduced on the American market this year, but has been operating for Canadians and Europeans for three years. It’s one of the first opportunities offered to Americans to see Cuba by cruise ship. But IST Group’s CEO Michael Goren claims that his company was the first to offer cruises around Cuba to Americans, using a mega-yacht.

Goren made a good case that IST’s product gives a much more in-depth experience of Cuba than what will be offered by large cruise ships getting into the market. Once again, Goren’s orientation is that of a tour operator.

Goren, with his company IST Cultural Tours, was a pioneer in creating cultural tours back in the 1990s with tours that focused on cultural experiences at a destination. I traveled on one called “In the Footsteps of the Great Composers” in Austria in the late 1990s. It was essentially the model of what we see now in the explosion of “experiential” tours, as well as for the people to people tours in Cuba.

Ironically, although the people to people regulations imposed by the U.S. government under the embargo have been seen as onerous by practically everyone, they did have the positive result of producing the kinds of experiential tours that nearly everyone wants today. When I was traveling in Cuba last week with Canadians, I was surprised to hear one say, “I have a serious case of envy with your people to people tours. We Canadians have only traveled to Cuba as a cheap beach holiday.”

So go figure. One man’s elixir is another man’s poison.

Now this week we see Lindblad Expeditions unveiling its Cuba cruise. Lindblad is an expedition operator. The company sees itself as a tour operator, not a cruise line. It is a member of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, not the Cruise Industry Trade Association. So once again this is a tour operator that uses ships, and a very different animal from the standard cruise lines, such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, etc.

Lindblad Expeditions follows in the tradition of Lars-Eric Lindblad, the founder of Lindblad Travel in 1958, and the father of Sven-Olof Lindblad, president of today’s Lindblad Expeditions. Lars-Eric designed the model for Antarctic expeditions that is still used today by virtually all tour operators who take passengers to Antarctica and actually go onto the land. Lindblad was among the first to take tourists to many new destinations, including China and the Galapagos.

The Lindblad tradition is all about exploration of little-known and exotic places, so the company’s trip to Cuba will certainly be a unique offering. Though it’s only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba is one of the most exotic destinations in the world now for Americans. We are waiting to hear more of the details in the next few days.

Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Kent’s President Phil Otterson announced that he will be leading a special trip to Cuba entitled “Cuba: People to People: A Special President's Journey.” The 10-day trip will depart next fall, Oct. 11-20, and will include 24 participants. It will visit the essential Havana, but will also go beyond Havana to Cienfuegos, Caibarién, Santa Clara and the eco-community of Las Terrazas.

Otterson visited Cuba in 2003 with a group of travel industry professionals on an exploratory trip and meeting with Cuban tourism officials. The group actually met with Fidel Castro. It was 13 years ago, but it seems like a century.

READ MORE: A&K President Phil Otterson Announces Special Journey to Cuba

A&K was one of the few tour operators that did not cancel its tours when President Obama’s visit made Havana almost off limits.

I traveled with Otterson on A&K’s last President’s Journey, which was to Egypt. It was a big effort by the company to support the tourism industry in Egypt. A&K doesn’t launch a President’s Journey except in rare instances, and the trip to Cuba will no doubt be spectacular. A&K has been operating there a few years already and brings its own style to the trips.

It behooves practically anyone in the travel industry to learn about Cuba, and for travel agents, Sunny Land Tours is offering a familiarization trip to Cuba June 25-29. The five-day trip is priced $1,499, so it provides a chance to sample the island at a relatively low price. The first-person experience of Cuba right now is a highly valuable asset for a travel agent during the storm of interest in Cuba.

It is unlikely there will be any less news about Cuba next week or the week after. This is going to be an extremely hot topic for a long time. And it will keep on changing. It’s going to be extremely fascinating for a long time.

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