Last updated: 07:15 PM ET, Fri March 18 2016

Tour Operators Cheer Newest Relaxation of Cuba Travel Restrictions

Tour Operator | David Cogswell | March 18, 2016

Tour Operators Cheer Newest Relaxation of Cuba Travel Restrictions

PHOTO: The Bay of Pigs. (Photo by David Cogswell)

Now that regulations have been relaxed and individuals no longer have to join a group to travel to Cuba, it looks like the jig is up for tour operators. If people can go on their own, why should they go with a tour operator? It’s been a good run, but now it’s over.

Well, actually it’s not. Far from it.

“We feel it will drive even more bookings to us as more consumers become aware that they can travel to Cuba,” said Arthur Berman, vice president of Latin America and Cuba for Central Holidays.

Though Americans are no longer forced to travel in groups, the U.S. State Department still requires a full schedule of people-to-people activities. People traveling on their own will have to arrange those meetings on their own.

“They must comply with all the regulations and keep their travel records for five years,” said Ronen Paldi, president of Ya'lla Tours USA.

“Although restrictions have been eased, free and unscheduled tourism is still not allowed,” said Jean Fawcett, media relations manager for Abercrombie & Kent USA. “The easiest and most rewarding option is an established people-to-people exchange program with a company experienced in coordinating travel to Cuba. Guests appreciate our ability to plan and customize their educational exchange activities based on their personal interests - along with the assurance that the activities meet U.S. requirements.”

And there is the matter of finding a hotel room when most are taken.  

“A&K has already reserved space at the best hotels,” said Fawcett, “which is particularly important in a destination where hotel availability is limited and there are very few luxury properties – especially now that tourism is expected to increase rapidly.”

Making the most of a trip is always a challenge, moreso in Cuba than in most other places.

READ MORE: Travel To Cuba: What’s In It For Travel Agents?

“You may try to go to Havana as an individual, but hotel space is very scarce,” said Katharine Bonner, senior vice president of Tauck. “Who would you contact to set up your own people to people program? How would you get around? You can take taxis in Havana, but how would you get to a place like Pinar del Rio to see the tobacco farms? There’s very little public transportation, and when it’s available it’s jam-packed.

“And, although financial constraints have lessened, there is still no U.S. credit card usage in Cuba – are you going to carry around a wad of cash?

“Change is coming slowly to Cuba, and people should not expect things to change just because our government eases restrictions. Cuban infrastructure moves and improves even slower.”

Navigating through the customs of a foreign country can be difficult, and that goes double for Cuba. As close as it is geographically, it is remote in terms of how things work there.

“Although the lines to Cuba have been opened to travelers in the United States, it does not change the way in which many Cuban businesses operate,” said Dan Sullivan Jr., president of Collette. “Having the expertise of a tour operator by your side to guide you through the many decisions that come along with planning a trip to a destination like Cuba is essential.”

The loosening of regulations does not in itself make traveling in Cuba easier.

“My feeling is that the effect of these new relaxations is greater confusion in the marketplace,” said Bob Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “While we all applaud the opening of Cuba, this ‘threading the needle’ around the restrictions of the embargo is problematic for travelers and agents. There is no clarity on what is a people-to-people itinerary for individuals, no readily available accommodations, no air service except for difficult-to-book charters. How does a travel agent advise a client?”

The opening of the FIT market to American travelers in Cuba is not seen as a threat by tour operators.

READ MORE: 5 Hotels and Resorts in Cuba We Can’t Wait to Visit

“There will always be the intrepid traveler who goes off on their own and takes pride in doing their own thing,” said John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours. “I say Godspeed to them. We envision years of backlog for the escorted traveler to get to Cuba. Space is limited and there are complexities standing in the way of most travelers. Cuba may only be a hundred miles away but it is, in effect, light years away from people bypassing the value and security of traveling with like-minded people.”

The Bottleneck

In the short term, there will be little noticeable change because of what Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, refers to as “the bottleneck.” The situation on the ground has a long way to go to accommodate the changes that have already taken place.

“The changes in the regulations in the past year have significantly opened up the amount of travel to Cuba,” said Popper. “What we’ve seen as a result, the Cuban infrastructure, the hotels, the capacity for flights has really just been tapped out.”

What Popper is celebrating now about the latest relaxation of regulations is that it sends a signal that the opening of relations between the two countries is going ahead.

“What this does is momentous in the sense that the President is making it very clear to the American people and to the Cuban government that he has every intent to relax the travel restrictions, because doing what he did takes it as far as he possibly can,” said Popper. “And though we will see an increased amount of travelers, whether it be individuals traveling under people to people or individuals looking for escorted tours, the net effect will be more travelers, which is a great thing for everybody.”  

Commercial flights are expected to be in operation by fall of 2016, which will make it easier for individuals to go on their own, and will open new choices for travelers. But putting together a quality experience in Cuba will require some special expertise for a long time.

“If they want to spend an ungodly amount of hours figuring out where they’re going to stay and what they are going to do to comply with the regulations, they can,” said Popper. “If they want to go to Cuba and see parts of Cuba based on experience from different companies that will be able to take care of everything from the paperwork to the visas to the flights to the activities, they’ll have that choice too.”

One particular door that opened to little fanfare could end up being quite significant.

“The State Department had a Facebook chat this morning,” said Popper, “and one of the questions was, ‘If guests go to Varadero, the beach resort, will that comply if they are doing people to people activities at a beach location?’ And the answer was, ‘Yeah.’

“So they are loosening as much as possible. That’s great news because that just gives people more choices, more options as far as where they can go and what they’re going to do.”

In a morass of confusing regulations, one thing that seemed clear in the past was the oft-repeated: “You can’t go to the beach in Cuba.” Now the State Department has changed its tune on that.

“Technically, the way it used to work, going swimming on the beach was prohibited,” said Popper. “The intent of the regulation was to not promote tourism in the sense where you would go to all-inclusive beach resort and not leave. It wasn’t believed that you’d have any meaningful interaction with Cuban people other than the people serving you at the resort.”

Now that the State Department has changed its tune it opens up new possibilities for tour operators.

READ MORE: How Americans Can Travel To Cuba Right Now

“It was interesting that the State Department said no, there isn’t a problem with that. It’s really the first time they have vocally said anything. So we’ve been working on different products going out to the areas because we do get a lot of calls from people who do want to see Cuba's coastline, because it’s unspoiled and it’s undeveloped. It’s one of the few places in the Caribbean where you can really experience that. I don’t think I’ve seen any part of the Cuban coast that isn’t gorgeous. You can go to places in Central America and South America that are on the Caribbean where you can’t say that.”

The good news is that travel continues to open in Cuba. The bad news? Well, there isn’t much. What is bad is not news, it’s just the status quo. The embargo is still in place. Capacity will continue to be an issue. Prices will rise.

Though new opportunities are opening for travelers and travel providers, the changes will take time. Capacity will continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future and tour operators will continue to be in great demand for most Americans traveling to Cuba.

“It’s going to take some time for things to happen,” said Popper, “but the pendulum has swung and people are trying to figure out how to make it all work. But for travel agents and travelers there’s still going to be this wonderment of: How do I do it?

“Today a journalist called. He’s going down and was having trouble securing a hotel room. He wanted to know how to book a private restaurant, how to make sure he can get a return flight. These are people in the know, and they’re still struggling to figure it out. I think for tour operators there will always be a niche as there is in France and Italy. The good news is that in the near future there will be new products and new opportunities for tourists to do some different things.”



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