Cuba for Everyone

In its 2014 Economic Impact Study, members of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) named Cuba one of the top two “emerging” countries whose popularity would grow in 2015. With hindsight, it’s clear that those respondents hit the bulls-eye. Indeed, Cuba is the most talked-about destination in the Caribbean right now, notwithstanding the fact that even with the recent thaw in diplomatic relations, U.S. citizens are still restricted to 12 categories of travel.

Of course, the category that’s accessible to the most people is the fastest-growing category: the people-to-people program. What’s more, as tour operators continue to launch new packages to Cuba, the demographics of Americans who are going there keeps expanding. The market now ranges from retirees who have time for longer vacations to strivers who demand trips lasting less than a week, and from young people on limited budgets to established couples who will spend upwards of five figures for a 10-day trip. The variety of itineraries has expanded, too: For example, Mayflower Tours now offers cruise-based trips, Travcoa runs packages that emphasize cuisine, Globus is offering an 11-day Spiritual Journey through Cuba, and so on. The only thing not yet available is FIT trips for beach-and-beers travelers. Will that be the next breakthrough? I put that and several other questions to two companies whose people-to-people trips are quite singular but for one aspect: They’re enormously popular.

Abercrombie & Kent offer people-to-people programs to Cuba.
Abercrombie and Kent offer people-to-people programs to Cuba.

abercrombie & kent
“We launched our first people-to-people program to Cuba in 2011, after regulations were amended to allow this type of travel,” says Marianne McNulty, A&K’s Cuba product specialist. “There was a pent-up demand to experience Cuba in an authentic way, through personal interactions with the local people. Since then, we’ve seen steady growth, with double the number of guests compared with last year.”

The Cuba: People to People itinerary, a 10-day trip (from $6,296 pp dbl) with 16 departures in 2016, features stays at the Melia hotels in Havana and Remedios. The architectural tour of Havana is led by an architect; the visit to a medical facility features conversations with a Cuban physician; there’s a private Buena Vista Social Club-style concert and discussion with the musicians; a talk about U.S.-Cuba relations by a former Cuban Foreign Services scholar; an excursion to Las Terrazas eco-community; and not only a beisbol game, but a chance to play a few innings. That’s immersive, all right.

“We initiated Cuba: Across the Island this year with five departures,” says McNulty. “Now there is considerable interest in exploring more of the island than just the Havana area, so we have extended the offering for 2016 to 12 departures.”

When asked what makes A&K’s trips distinctive, McNulty says, “A&K developed its programs to enable guests to immerse themselves in Cuban culture, exploring its architecture, agriculture, music and cuisine through intimate, one-to-one exchanges with local residents. Additionally, we have space reserved at the best hotels, particularly important in a destination where…there are few luxury properties.”

Some Cuban-born travelers take A&K programs, but the majority are Americans of any ethnicity who are “professionals and entrepreneurs with an intense curiosity about the world. Travel is an essential part of their luxury lifestyle, which may also include fine automobiles, yachts, [and] collectibles,” says McNulty.

The standard commission for A&K’s trips is 10 percent, but “we offer elevated commission based on agency affiliation,” she adds.

Finally, as travel restrictions to Cuba continue to diminish, might there no longer be a need for people-to-people packages? “It’s been exciting seeing the new developments in U.S. and Cuba relations, most recently the embassy opening, but free and unscheduled travel is still not allowed,” says McNulty. Therefore, she expects A&K’s people-to-people programs to continue thriving, adding that the restoration of diplomatic relations will, in fact, “encourage more Americans to consider travel to Cuba.”

apple vacations
When Apple Vacations debuted its Cuba trips for September and October, “[they] sold out in record time,” says Tim Mullen, president of Apple Vacations. “We’ve recently announced 26 departure
dates for 2016 and expect to continue adding more as our capacity fills. Apple is now looking at expanding into new U.S. departure cities and creating some exclusive tours for Apple Leisure Group clients.”

The 5-night Havana Getaway has been the most popular itinerary because, as Mullen explains, “It’s a shorter program [than] the 10-plus days required by most operators going to Cuba. This makes our Cuba tours very appealing to American travelers, who prefer more frequent trips of shorter duration. It is a stark contrast to Cuba tours being marketed to Americans based largely on European travel habits.”

Even so, you might wonder how Apple expanded its new program so quickly. “The demand was already there,” says Mullen. “It’s also important to note that we did not rush to assemble our Cuba program. We…did our homework and took the time to carefully package the allure and mystery of Cuba according to the needs and travel interests of the average American…. This gives us a major leg up in the market that no one else has at this time.” In other words, he says, “we are the first and only mass market operator to launch tours” to that island, with programs that “stand out in every way,
from price points and overall value to convenient and seamless travel experiences designed specifically [for] the American traveler.”

That “American traveler” is not a narrow term. “Cuba…appeals to a wide range of traveler demographics, from millennials seeking an authentic Cuba mojito to the recent retiree who’s dreamed of visiting Cuba for most of his/her adult life,” notes Mullen.

Apple Vacations’ rates for Cuba start at $2,553 pp dbl through April 2016. After that, pricing starts $2,452 pp dbl, with departures scheduled through Oct. 15. “The majority of our first Cuba-bound customers booked through travel agents as the retail sector jumped on the opportunity to send their clients on the day we launched, and agents have continued to take advantage of the limited capacity we’ve had thus far.” Apple pays 10 percent commission on these packages, and Mullen admits, “There’s been little need to incentive Cuba beyond that fair commission, as the ability to get one’s clients on a Cuba trip is already a major feather in a retailer’s cap.”

Alex Zozaya, CEO of the Apple Leisure Group, feels that in the long run “Cuba will open fully,” at which time the people-to-people category might be gone completely. However, he cautions, restrictions will loosen up incrementally, not overnight. “In the short term,” he concludes, “we will double or triple people-to-people.”

Sure enough, that’s just what Mullen has done. “The U.S. relationship with Cuba is a highly politicized issue,” he says, “and we are approaching another election cycle. [However], it will be difficult for a Republican administration to put the genie back in the bottle. If the Democrats lose in 2016, we’re hopeful the programs will continue as is.”

contact information
Abercrombie & Kent:
Apple Vacations:
Globus: or
Mayflower Tours:
Travcoa: or