For over 50 years, travel to Cuba has been limited from the U.S., but as of last Friday, new travel rules between the two countries are now in effect. This could mean big changes for both travelers and travel advisors, but tell clients not to start packing just yet.
“With the loosening of travel restrictions to Cuba as part of President Obama’s plans to normalize diplomatic relations between the two countries, interest in visiting this untouched island nation has skyrocketed. But can Americans jump on a plane today to visit Cuba? The short answer is ‘no,’ at least not for some time until commercial flights begin and the infrastructure is in place,” says Terry Dale, president and CEO of USTOA. “More than a dozen trusted tour operator members of USTOA, however, already offer cultural programs to Cuba and have made the people, culture and history of this vibrant country accessible to U.S. travelers. Even with the changing restrictions, tour operators with existing programs are in the strongest position to help visitors make the most of their trip to Cuba and navigate the limitations still in place.”
Richard Krieger, president of Isramworld, notes that these changes do not directly impact tourism or LATOUR’s current state of business. However, the recent coverage on Cuba in the press has stirred up interest. “Our phones are ringing more than ever, which is great for business,” he adds. Collette’s executive v.p., Paula Twidale, also notes the company’s excitement for what the changes in the travel restrictions can mean for the future. “We are encouraged by the new changes because lessening the barriers to international travel encourages peace and cooperation. Increased travel and tourism results in a stronger economy and more jobs here in the U.S.,” she says. “Easing restrictions creates opportunity for travel providers and U.S. guests, which will result in more travel to Cuba. It is a positive move that encourages communication, cultural interaction and good will. The only impact to consider is whether the infrastructure can keep up with increased demand while delivering a quality experience.”
Rules & Regulations
First, let’s take a look at what these rules are in relation to travel. The new rules now allow U.S. citizens to use credit cards in Cuba; there will no longer be limits on how much money U.S. citizens can spend in Cuba per day; Americans can now also bring back up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco from Cuba; Internet service can be provided by U.S. firms; Americans can now travel to the island without asking a government agency for permission; and booking air travel can also be done directly through an authorized agency. Dale points out that under these new regulations agents are authorized to book travel to the island without having a special license. “More agents will start selling Cuba and they expect business to grow…agents agree that tour operators are still the best way to go,” he adds.
However, restrictions do remain in place. Travelers will still have to justify that their visits fit into one of the 12 pre-approved categories, including education, religious, cultural, journalistic, humanitarian, and family purposes, among others. “It’s still interesting, as you can’t go as a regular tourist; you can only go via 12 authorized categories—and 95 percent of travelers are still going to go under people-to-people programs. Travel to Cuba will be easier but visitors still need to keep a written record of their Cuba transactions for the next five years,” points out Krieger.
Visitors will still need to obtain visas from the Cuban government; and those traveling on a people-to-people exchange will still need to go with a group and keep a full schedule of approved activities. “Travel to Cuba, though, will stay the same as it’s based on the people-to-people concept, which OFAC still wants. Basically, leisure travel to Cuba will not be around for many years yet because of the embargo, which can only be lifted by an act of Congress,” points out Krieger.
Though it’s still not as easy as just hoping on a plane for a Cuban vacation—ordinary tourism still remains banned by law—visiting the island has become a little easier. “There is a pent-up demand to experience Cuba and interact with its people. The recent amendment facilitates the provision of travel to Cuba by travel providers and airlines of authorized services. Enhancing telecommunications and allowing financial institutions to offer credit card services as well as allowing some duty free goods, increases consumer confidence,” says Twidale.
However, as Travel Leaders Group CEO, Barry Liben, points out, the new regulations does not mean that all is clear. “As we said last month when the President first announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba, all of us at Travel Leaders Group believe there is no greater way for Americans to break down barriers than through their unimpeded travel, where we can collectively exchange in a free flow of ideas. Last week’s policy change only furthers that capability, but it does not yet mean that Americans can travel freely since general tourist travel remains prohibited.”
A Hot Destination
Dale notes that the island has been gaining popularity recently, even before the announcement on the new travel regulations. “Cuba is now one of the hottest destinations for U.S. travelers and demand for this predominantly untouched destination was validated by our active members in a study conducted by Pricewatershouse Coopers in [the] fall 2014, who named Cuba the second top ’emerging’ country in 2015,” he adds. “This is [the] first time Cuba appears on USTOA’s list—in the very impressive position of second—confirming the growing interest from American travelers. And given the recent news of the United States and Cuba restoring relations, the destination is very much on travelers’ radar with demand only anticipated to grow.”
Though the new changes don’t necessarily mean that travelers will be opting for mojitos and lounging by the shores of Varadero Beach. Today’s traveler is looking for more than time beachside. As Dale puts it, “Americans will probably not skip the all-day tours in lieu of a more relaxed vacation or time on the beach. Today’s travelers continue to crave culturally immersive experiences and given that travel to Cuba has been restricted to Americans for such a long period of time, members anticipate that U.S. travelers will want to fully soak up the colorful history and lively culture of this captivating nation.” Adding that, “Examples of the ‘live like a local’ experiences they provide include the opportunity to dine at a family-owned paladar, a small specialty restaurant with its own organic farm; take native dance lessons; meet with local children at an afterschool program; ride an antique sugar cane steam train, and engage in enriching discussions with local residents about the architecture, history, culture and more.” Twidale agrees, adding that “Americans will want to experience the culture, art and history and engage with the Cuban people, as intended by the amendment to the regulations.”
While some tour operators (and even cruise lines) are already thinking about how this will affect their future itineraries, others will remain the same, for now. “LATOUR’s people-to-people exchange programs remain as they are for now, offering travelers the opportunity to experience Hello Cuba, Shalom Cuba and LGBT Cuba, as we are the only tour operator to offer regular specialty departures,” adds Krieger. Collette will also continue to operate as planned, offering travelers people-to-people educational experiences while immersing travelers in the Cuban culture. During a recent Crystal Cruises luncheon Recommend attended, the cruise line’s president and CEO, Edie Rodriguez, shared her excitement regarding the possibility of traveling to the island. “We want to go. It would be very easy for us to swap out a port and add Cuba. But we want it to be safe and we want to feel that it would be up to an American standard. Beyond 2018 we can plan out some Cuba itineraries, but our current books are until 2017.”
Liben agrees that though this is a positive change, it will still take some time. “The big question mark is on the long term opportunities. While we believe it’s inevitable that Cuba will open up completely—it’s really more of a question as to ‘When?’ than ‘If?’—it’s important to understand that ultimately, only Congress can end the embargo. That is a move that Travel Leaders Group supports.” Adding that, “even though the new regulations took effect on Friday, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the apparatus is in place to immediately fill the demand. That will take time.”
Though travel has not totally changed with the new restrictions, and time will still tell what lies ahead, the new ramifications will impact the way tourists visit the island and ease a bit on who can go, yet according to Krieger, this is just the beginning. “Visitors’ experiences will definitely be enhanced, as there is no limit to the amount of money they can spend; they can now bring back cigars and rum; and they can use their credit cards—which will make things much easier. Overall, this is great news; it’s opening up the doors to a country that’s been basically closed except to a privileged few. Also, not tomorrow, but eventually, there will be daily air service to Havana, which will make it much simpler to get there.
“No one knows for certain right now, but the chance is that once Cuba is open and the tourism infrastructure is ready for mass tourists, it will become more of a beach and cruise destination. We are hopeful, though, that there will still be an influx of tourists through LATOUR who enjoy traveling in groups and learning about the educational and historical aspects of Cuba. The destination really has a rich history, which is something that piques visitors’ curiosity and will continue to do so,” Krieger points out.
Agents, too, are excited about the new travel regulations for the island. Twidale points out that agents are eager to learn how these changes will positively affect their guests. “Onerous restrictions can be a deterrent for some and they may shy away until they feel comfortable with the terms,” she adds.
For Travel Leaders Group, the new regulations doesn’t necessarily mean business has automatically changed, it’s still business as usual when it comes to travel to Cuba. “In the short term, the business opportunities for our travel agents under the Travel Leaders Group umbrella lie within matching those clients who are interested in traveling to Cuba with the appropriate tour operator authorized to offer the people-to-people cultural exchanges,” says Liben. “Over the past year, we sent several delegations of our travel agents with our tour operator partners directly to Cuba to experience such exchanges so they can sell these packages from a point of personal knowledge and expertise. We certainly expect that we’ll not only see more of our agents able to take advantage of similar opportunities, but as more clients express interest in Cuba as it opens up, we’ll be at the forefront of getting them there legally.”
However, Krieger points out that, “travel professionals seem to be in a rush to encourage travelers to experience this exciting country before it ‘changes’ in the future. I fully agree. Now is the time to see this captivating island nation.”