Airlines & Airports
Travel to Cuba: ‘A Moment in History for Travel Professionals’
Photo by David Cogswell
Travel agents are—for the most part—excited by the latest development in a process that promises to open up Cuba to mainstream tourism.
In what is a step-by-step process, U.S. officials this week signed a U.S.-Cuba air travel agreement, hammered out in December, that will pave the way for commercial flights between the two countries.
Rhonda Day, a Louisville, Ky.-based CruiseOne franchisee, called the agreement a “moment in history for travel professionals.”
“Because of the fact that it has been 50 years since the ban has been in place, most of us that sell travel do not remember a time when Cuba was open for travel,” said Day. “When you sell travel, there are only so many cities, countries, ports, beaches, that you can send clients to. Having an entirely new destination is extremely exciting for travel agents. Cuba is something new to talk about.”
The island nation’s proximity to the U.S also makes Cuba particularly attractive, Day added.
“This is going to be huge for travel agents,” agreed Susan Leonidas, of Your Travel and Cruise Concierge in Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida. “I have a ton of clients who have been waiting with baited breath to be able to go to Cuba without having to do a people-to-people tour.”
The people-to-people tours are U.S.-sanctioned trips to Cuba that have enabled Americans to travel to the country with government-licensed tour operators for trips that fall into certain prescribed categories including cultural and religious exchanges.
“The same reasons the U.S. government now gives for permission to go to Cuba will attract the same sort of clientele when the country opens up,” said James Buckley, president of Island Travel in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, referring to the people-to-people tours.
These will be consumers interested in culture, art and anthropology, for instance, but more [travelers] will be able to go because they won’t be locked into traveling only with licensed tour operators, he added.
Buckley, though, sounded a note of caution on travel to Cuba.
“Information that comes through the media is, in a sense, misleading because it leaves the impression that there are finished deals and consumers can pick up the phone and book a flight to Cuba,” he said.
Buckley predicted some confusion among consumers who “are not understanding that these are steps in a process.”
Echoing other Cuba watchers who note the island nation’s poor infrastructure—a drawback for that large segment of comfort-loving American tourists—Buckley said, “Demand will outstrip the capabilities.”
People cannot expect a “radical, quick change” in the country’s offerings although eventually new properties and other improvements will be made, he added.
There are also strong similarities between travel to Vietnam and the soon-to-be mainstream travel to Cuba, according to Buckley.
He sees a “flashback to when Vietnam first opened up.” With Vietnam there were people who, because of their politics, never wanted to travel there, said Buckley.
For Cuba, there will also be those who, remembering the tense days of the Kennedy administration and the crises over Cuba, will never want to go. But there will also be those who can’t wait to go, Buckley predicted.
Trish Gastineau, of Montgomery, Alabama-based Simply Europe Travel, also has reservations about Cuba’s readiness to welcome mass tourism from the U.S.
“I really have mixed feelings about commercial flights starting to serve Cuba,” said Gastineau. “I think that the flights are going to really open Cuba travel up, and that's a positive thing. But as with any kind of progress, there will most likely be some unforeseen ramifications to both the U.S. and to Cuba.
“Cuba does have some tourist infrastructure in place, but a sudden influx of American travelers may overwhelm them.”
Still, Gastineau thinks the removal of all barriers to Cuba travel will be a good thing for agents.
“There is a certain mystery about Cuba since it was ‘forbidden’ for so long,” she said. “ A smart travel advisor who has a passion for Cuba should start making personal connections with travel partners, get educated on the ins and outs of Cuba, and position themselves as a ‘go to travel expert.’”
And there will be plenty to sell in a destination ideal for history buffs, cruisers and beach lovers, according to Day.
“Everyone has seen the pictures of the old cars and the colorful buildings,” Day said. “What a great way to ‘step back in time’ and see the streets filled with cars that are 50 years old.
“Avid cruisers will be very excited to have a new port,” she added. “There are so many beautiful ports, but regular cruisers that sail one, two times a year or more are always looking for something new. And for beach lovers, Cuba is right in the middle of the beautiful Caribbean.”
Day and Leonidas said they will actively market Cuba.
And that will be a natural for Leonidas, “as I live in one of the largest Cuban enclaves in the nation,” she said.
“Tampa is home to Ybor City, where they used to make Cuban cigars and our city has deep roots with Cubans,” Leonidas said. “Many of my friends can trace their roots back to the island, and my husband and I look forward to being able to travel there soon.”
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