How to Travel to Cuba This Year

Clients who want to see Cuba for its culture and wealth of experiential travel offerings should plan their vacation to the island now. Pictured above is Morro Castle (fortress) in Havana.
Clients who want to see Cuba for its culture and wealth of experiential travel offerings should plan their vacation to the island now. Pictured above is Morro Castle (fortress) in Havana.

Ever since the U.S. and Cuba began the process of lifting travel restrictions between the two countries, agents across the U.S. have been asking the question: Is it better to get to Cuba before the American masses arrive, or is it smarter to wait for Cuba to become further prepared for the influx of U.S. tourists it is bound to get? Many contend that Cuba’s hotel product might take a few years to be up to many U.S. tourists’ typical standards and that much of the infrastructure still needs to be improved before waves of Americans crash onto the once-forbidden Caribbean island.

Then there are those who say one should get there now before Cuba loses its authenticity and becomes more commercialized.

For Peggy Goldman, the president and founder of Friendly Planet Travel, the answer is quite simple. Clients looking for a typical Caribbean beach vacation with high-end all-inclusive resorts should wait about two or three years before they visit the country, she says. On the other hand, Goldman says clients who want to see Cuba for its culture and experiential offerings should plan their Cuba vacation now.

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“After a while, we see that there is going to be a fatigue factor among the locals [participating in cultural experiences with Americans],” says Goldman. “Right now, it still feels like a fresh, authentic experience, but we expect it to become less and less authentic and more commercialized as time goes on.”

New Tours

The Latest From Travel Impressions: As part of Travel Agents recent coverage of Travel Impressions’ “Best of the Best” awards, we got the skinny on the tour operator’s new tours to Cuba. Travel Impressions (TI) has added the once-forbidden destination of Cuba to its portfolio. The company will be accepting bookings for its “Rhythms of Cuba” and “Expressions of Cuba” tours, operating under the People-to-People program, one of the 12 pre-approved travel categories licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of Treasury.

As far as how these tours differentiate from the Cuba tours sold by sister operator Apple Vacations, Erin McCarthy, vice president of marketing for Travel Impressions, says there are different departures and different itineraries in TI’s Cuba offerings.

Jeff Clarke, CEO and president of Travel Impressions, also notes that while Apple is targeting all travelers to Cuba, his company is specifically targeting the affluent client.

The tours will depart from Miami International Airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Agents can arrange connections from all major U.S. gateways.

Travel Impressions is working with U.S.-based Cuba Travel Services, a Cuba-licensed operator that charters flights from Miami to Cuba with Sun Country Airlines and American Airlines. Connections to Miami can be arranged from all major U.S. gateways.

Abercrombie & Kent’s NEW Private Tours: Travelers now have the opportunity to experience Cuba as it currently is, still untouched by time, on Abercrombie & Kent’s first private journey, “Signature Cuba: A Private People to People Journey.” On this seven-day, privately guided itinerary, guests will travel with a dedicated Abercrombie & Kent program director and local guides, experiencing meaningful interactions and people-to-people connections.

Clients will explore the city by foot with a local architect who offers authentic insights into its historic styles and dine at a paladar (family-run restaurant) where the owners share their passion for Cuban cuisine and discuss what is involved in running a private business in Cuba — an opportunity that, historically, was all but unheard of. Clients can also join renowned Cuban painter and ceramicist, Jose Fuster, on a neighborhood walk, followed by a discussion of the role of the arts in contemporary Cuban culture.

High Demand Prompts Apple Vacations to Add More: With Apple Vacations’ tours to Cuba completely sold out for 2015, and 2016 departures selling quickly, the tour operator has created an exclusive eight-night Seascape Discovery tour. This new tour features one pre-night in Miami, four nights in Havana at the Iberostar Parque Central, three nights in Varadero at the Iberostar Varadero, comprehensive sightseeing tours, interactions with local artists, salsa lessons, a boat ride through an underground river, pottery demonstrations, rum and cigar tastings and authentic Cuban cuisine.

The eight-night Seascape Discovery is priced from $5,550 per person double, with the following departure dates: February 13, March 26, April 30, May 28, June 25, July 30, August 27, September 24 and October 29.

Prices include Cuban health insurance, charter flights departing from Miami (connecting flights from other U.S. cities available), Cuban tourist visa processing and U.S. taxes and fees. A Cuban departure tax of $25 per passenger will be collected upon check-in at Miami International Airport.

Travel to Cuba must be booked 64 days in advance of departure to allow ample time for the processing of required documentation. Travelers will receive an orientation in Miami to ensure familiarity with Cuban laws, policies and traditions prior to arrival in Cuba.

Island Destinations Launches New Itineraries, Agent Loyalty Program: Island Destinations (ID) recently hosted its 2016 Luxury Travel Forum at New York City’s St. Regis Hotel, unveiling its 2016 Travelers Collection brochure, a new travel agent loyalty program titled 2016 ULTIMATE Reward Program, and exciting new travel experiences through ID’s new ULTIMATE Itineraries — Cuba.

Announced at the event was the addition of Cuba to the ID ULTIMATE Itineraries division. ID Travel Group has invested substantially in designing full-time People-to-People exchanges for travelers to experience the charm of Cubans and their proud culture. The program features exclusively planned visits to private homes and businesses in Havana and Trinidad de Cuba for a unique and rich experience on the unspoiled island.

Interactions with local artists are a part of many People-to-People Programs. Pictured here is Casa-Estudio de Fuster, the studio and home of José Fuster, a world-renowned painter and ceramist.
Interactions with local artists are a part of many People-to-People Programs. Pictured here is Casa-Estudio de Fuster, the studio and home of José Fuster, a world-renowned painter and ceramist.

Cox & Kings Introduces Private and Escorted Tours: On Cox & Kings’ newly launched trips to Cuba, clients can visit schools, artists’ studios and cigar factories in Havana and then delve into the countryside, meeting with organic farmers, and exploring the underground wonderland of Pinar del Rio. Travelers can choose from either a Cox & Kings Luxury Escorted Group Journey or a Select Private Journey. Guests on the inaugural Cox & Kings Escorted Journey can enjoy complimentary airfare between Miami and Havana when booking by January 31.

Collette’s ‘Rediscover Cuba’ Brings Cultures Together: Designed to bridge a cultural divide, this four-night tour explores the art, history and culture of the Cuban people. It endeavors to develop an understanding of who they are when meeting with local shopkeepers, musicians, choral singers, dancers, factory workers and more. The program spends time at a retirement community, the “grandparents party,” where visitors will listen to them sing, dance and play music. Participants will also ride a steam train through the sugar cane fields to the charming city of Remedios, take in the colonial feel of Cienfuegos (“La Perla del Sur” or Pearl of the South), and visit historic cathedrals and colonial homes on city tours, led by a local guide. Guests stay at the iconic Hotel Nacional and explore much of the city’s architecture in Old Havana. Other highlights include learning the rhythm of Cuba through Salsa dancing and meeting a Cuban family in their very own paladar, a privately owned restaurant. Clients can opt to add on pre- and post-tour extensions.

Flower sellers dressed in colorful clothes wait for customers in Old Havana.
Flower sellers dressed in colorful clothes wait for customers in Old Havana.

Cuba Flight News

In December, the United States and Cuba reached a groundbreaking agreement to resume commercial air travel between the two countries for the first time in more than half a century, the State Department announced.

American Airlines reportedly plans to submit a U.S.-Cuba service proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) with the hope of introducing scheduled service soon in 2016.

United issued the following statement after the U.S. and Cuban governments agreed to reinstitute scheduled air service between the two nations: “United Airlines congratulates the U.S. and Cuban governments on reaching this historic arrangement, which will strengthen ties and economic development between the two countries. We look forward to offering service between our global gateways and Cuba as soon as we have approval to do so.”

JetBlue has also said that it will submit an application for new Cuba routes to the U.S. DOT once the airline has fully reviewed terms of the agreement and has clarity on the process and timing of assigning frequencies to U.S. airlines.

In late December, U.S.-based Havana Air announced that it will be the first carrier to launch a fully automated air reservation system for direct flight bookings to Cuba. The game-changing rollout, which went live on January 1, allows users to book their flights via the airline’s website. Through the site, travelers can book reservation while also being able to access and submit all required authorization forms and visa purchase for travel to Cuba. Havana Air’s online res system is also designed to integrate with all airline Global Distribution Systems (GDS), including Sabre, Galileo, Amadeus and others.

Established in 2007, Havana Air, which operates under authorized OFAC licenses, offers over 85 flights a month from Miami to five destinations in Cuba: Havana, Camaguey, Santa Clara, Holguin and Santiago. Clients can also complete planning for their Cuba experience through sister company Cultural Explorations, which specializes in one-of-a-kind Cuba cultural immersions tailored to each traveler’s needs.

With recently loosened U.S. restrictions and increasing interest in Cuba travel, there exists much confusion regarding the requirements, paperwork and processes needed to visit the island. The U.S. only allows for U.S. citizens and Cuban nationals to travel to the island under one of 12 provisions.

Havana Air’s new automated system outlines these requirements and allows travelers to select their appropriate categories for travel. Havana Air aims to make these processes and requirements simpler so that travelers can fully enjoy their Cuba travel experience.

The Visa Process

While government sanctions have been eased, U.S. citizens still need a visa and travel affidavit to enter Cuba. This means it remains illegal for Americans to travel as simple tourists. Instead, the Department of Treasury lists the permitted reasons to visit Cuba under the general license. There are 12 of them, including family visits, official government business, journalistic activity, professional research, professional meetings, educational activities and religious activities. (See the full list and descriptions in the Treasury Department’s Travel to Cuba FAQ under section II: Travel.)

Travel Agent recommends the People-to-People visa, which is intended to facilitate cultural exchanges between the two countries. Many organized tours, like National Geographic Expeditions or Soltura Travel, have based their programs around this visa for years, providing visitors with jam-packed itineraries filled with guides, meetings and speakers.

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