Robin Amster | March 10, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Travel To Cuba: What’s In It For Travel Agents?
A lot has been written lately about Cuba, given what looks to be the accelerating rate of change on the road to the complete normalization of relations between the U.S. and this island nation, long off limits to Americans.
But what does it all really mean for U.S. travel agents?
I asked long-time Cuba pro Tom Popper, president of insightCuba—which has been operating the U.S. government-sanctioned people-to-people tours to Cuba—for his perspective on that question.
“Any opening with regard to travel to Cuba is a good thing for travel agents and the travel industry as a whole,” Popper says. No surprise there.
And while U.S. citizens still have to qualify under one of the 12 categories of permissible travel to Cuba, commercial air will make it easier for agents to book passengers on some categories direct on commercial carriers, he adds.
But FIT travel to Cuba will remain a challenge, says Popper.
The main obstacle for agents is booking consumer services in Cuba including hotels. “Additionally, travel agents will find it very difficult to pay for services in Cuba, although some hotel websites are starting to accept U.S. credit cards,” Popper explains.
“However, many of these third-party sites aren’t able to maintain real time inventories with the hotels, since the systems don’t always communicate with each other.”
Popper notes that for now, the people-to-people tours remain the second largest category of travel for U.S. citizens, behind family travel for people of Cuban descent. And the people-to-people category still requires Americans to travel on an organized tour run by an organization with experience operating the trips and it also requires a representative from that company to accompany the passengers.
Yet, “as the landscape starts to become clearer, travel agents are becoming more comfortable booking their clients,” Popper says.
Perhaps also not surprisingly, given the news about the opening up of Cuba, coupled with American curiosity about the nation, Popper reports that insightCuba’s business has more than doubled in the past six months and the demand isn’t cooling down. “At least not yet,” he says.
The profile of U.S. visitors to Cuba may also be changing, according to Popper. And along with the normalization of relations—and travel—that’s great news for agents.
Traditionally the Cuba market has been dominated by travelers 50 years and older who are well-educated, frequent travelers interested in culture, the arts and history.
“However, in the past 15 months the demographic is increasing to the 40 plus category interested in seeing Cuba for the first time but also in experiencing the culture, with some wanting to see what unspoiled Caribbean beaches look like,” Popper says. “We are also seeing an increase in multi-generational family travel.”
Popper believes that people-to-people travel is still the best way to discover Cuba, and insightCuba will maintain it prominence in that category.
But the company is also looking to expand its offerings to small private group travel, custom group travel and FIT travel where it can, and it wants to get into additional areas of travel including business and adventure travel.
The continued loosening of restrictions gives agents the ability to sell travel. New options—like insightCuba’s plans—give them more to sell. It’s all good news for agents and their clients.
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