U.S. travel to Cuba is expected to rebound in 2019, according to a new survey released by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). The independent survey of U.S. tour operators and other service providers to Cuba shows that people-to-people travel, study abroad programs and cruise bookings are expected to rise this year after seeing declines in stayover travel in 2018. The findings come in the lead up to the 500th anniversary of Havana as the destination prepares for the expansion of its cultural programming and infrastructure.
Despite Trump Administration policy changes that impacted U.S. stayover travel to Cuba, the destination continues to attract visitors from around the world. According to Michel Bernal, ministry of tourism’s commercial director, a total of 4.75 million international visitor arrivals were recorded for Cuba in 2018 (up from 4.5 million in 2017) with the goal for 2019 set at 5.1 million travelers. Canada, the U.S. and Cuban residents abroad are Cuba’s top three markets with Russia, México, Brazil and China as the feeder markets with biggest growth in last two years. Booms in cruise ship arrivals, which grew 48 percent in 2018, played an important role in the unprecedented growth in travel to the region in 2018.
The survey showed that 55 percent of respondents involved in people-to-people travel expect their people-to-people travel bookings to Cuba to increase in 2019 compared to 2018. As for the decrease in travelers last year when compared to 2017, nearly all (95 percent) of respondents cited the U.S. State Department’s level three travel advisory for Cuba as the top reason. (In August 2018, the State Department changed its travel advisory from level three, “Reconsider Travel” to level two, “Exercise Increased Caution.”)
Cruise arrivals, which grew drastically in 2018, were expected to top 850,000 by the end of December, with 70 percent of these originating from the United States. On the horizon: Seaborn and Virgin Voyages are headed to Cuba in 2019 and 2020. Pearl Seas Cruises is currently sailing to Cuba until April and then resumes sailings November through December, which continues into 2020 with January to April offerings.
Art and culture are thriving as Havana’s 500th-anniversary celebration in November approaches. The Biennial is returning to Havana in full force April 12-May 19, 2019, after last year’s was cancelled due to hurricane damage. Artists from across the globe will descend on Cuba to showcase free art expositions, participate in conferences and network with both Cubans and their fellow artists. A highlight for film and cinematic fans, the 15th International Film Festival of Gibara will take place again this June, bringing together a line-up of Cuban independent filmmakers.
The country is also set to continue to draw educational travelers of all ages. Of CREST’s survey respondents involved in U.S. study abroad travel to Cuba, 60 percent said they expect their Cuba study abroad bookings to increase in 2019.