What Would an Open Cuba Mean for Caribbean Travel?

Among Cuba’s attractions for visitors are classic cars, colonial architecture and the Cuban people themselves.
Among Cuba’s attractions for visitors are classic cars, colonial architecture and the Cuban people themselves.

The news many Caribbean specialists and agents in general were waiting to hear for years finally came on December 17 when it was announced that the U.S. and Cuba would soon be renewing diplomatic relations, opening up the door for U.S. clients to soon visit the once forbidden land.

But with the subsequent move to loosen travel restrictions, and bipartisan legislation to repeal them entirely, came a host of questions: Will agents be eager to sell Cuba? Will other Caribbean destinations suffer? And what will happen to all of those operators selling People-to-People trips to Cuba? Travel Agent tackles those questions and more as we continue to prepare you for the inevitable Cuba “gold rush.”

Agents Are Eager to Sell It

Travel Agent spoke to several notable agents about the impact that an “open” Cuba will have on travel to the Caribbean and the rest of the world.

“I think the opening of Cuba will attract new customers to the Caribbean market, rather than shifting travelers away from other Caribbean destinations,” says Mitch Toren, chief vacation engineer for TripGuy Travel, based in Holland, PA. “People are looking for new locations to explore and Cuba has always had a romantic and historical appeal. I can see people who would prefer European or South American city stays considering Havana instead.”

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks brokered largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis (the first Pope from Latin America), who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast.

“I’m curious if people are going to jump right into exploring the destination or if they will still be hesitant,” says Emily Fisher of VIP Vacations, Inc., located in Bethlehem, PA. “I think more experienced travelers will be a bit more hesitant, while newer travelers and the younger generation will probably be more willing to jump right into it.”

“As far as impacts to other destinations, I think the biggest impact will be on the harder-to-reach smaller islands in the Southern Caribbean,” says Jeremy Mariette of Amphibia Travel, which is based in Minneapolis, MN. “With Cuba being a short flight from the U.S., it will make for an easy trip for most Americans.”

Going forward, normal relations between the two countries should make it easier for Americans to travel to the island and do business with the Cuban people by extending general licenses. A handful of international companies already operate in Cuba. For instance, Spanish hotel chain Melia has 26 properties on the island. Also, U.S. companies, such as Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International, say they would welcome any future opportunities to do business in Cuba.

“There are still many Americans who feel we should not have open relations with Cuba because of their political views,” says Bernadette Sperrazza of The World Awaits Travel. “It could take a lot of time to convince the masses of the U.S. that it is a safe destination for Americans. We will still see people traveling to the neighboring islands, Mexico and Hawaii. Every destination has something beautiful and unique to offer.”

While the more liberal travel restrictions won’t allow for tourism, they will permit greater American travel to the island. It is worth noting that last month’s announcement comes just months ahead of the March 2015 Summit of the Americas, in which Cuba is set to participate for the first time.

“Being positioned in South Florida, many travelers have been to the Bahamas and Caribbean; if Cuba opens up, it will pique a lot of interest for those looking for something new in the region,” says Ryan Mielke of Regency Travel, based in Fort Lauderdale. “Cuba is the biggest island with the longest beach-line in the Caribbean, with arguably the most interesting history and culture; I’ll be first in line to visit.”

Power to the ‘People to People’

Travel Agent’s first reaction to the news on December 17 was to feel sympathy for all those tour operators who worked, in some cases for years, to obtain a license to sell People-to-People travel to Cuba. For those who aren’t familiar with the program, the initiative requires Americans to take part in various cultural experiences in Cuba, essentially, as the name implies, putting them in direct contact with the people of Cuba with hopes of learning about the way of life in the country. It was implemented by President Clinton in 1999 and suspended by President Bush in 2004 before President Obama resurrected the program this past January.

A freshwater pool at Melia Santiago de Cuba. The hotel is one of 26 properties operated by Spanish hotel chain Melia on the island.
A freshwater pool at Melia Santiago de Cuba. The hotel is one of 26 properties operated by Spanish hotel chain Melia on the island.

Perhaps the main draw to the People-to-People trips was simply the opportunity to visit Cuba legally before the rest of the U.S. does. But now that it appears as though everyone will soon be allowed to travel to Cuba, the ‘People’ loophole is no longer needed. Clients will no longer be required to do anything on a vacation to Cuba other than drink rum and smoke fine cigars, if that’s what they want.

“From Mayflower’s standpoint, the People-to-People initiative is still a remarkable, short-term thing that we will continue to enjoy offering while it’s still going on,” says John Stachnik, president and co-owner of Mayflower Tours, one of several notable operators that possess a license to sell People-to-People travel to Cuba. “And when the floodgates open up, we will be ready to take over.”

On the other hand, perhaps the People-to-People trips may be more popular than ever before, given the see-it-before-everybody-else factor. (When I was lucky enough to visit Cuba a few years ago, in fact, it was the surreal feeling of being in a place so forbidden that made the trip so magical.)

Also, let’s not forget some of the attractions that will eventually disappear with an influx of U.S. tourists. Namely, the country’s classic American automobiles from the days when the U.S. was allowed to trade with Cuba will probably be replaced quickly with modern vehicles, as most classic car owners will likely sell their small fortune as soon as possible. As of now, People-to-People participants not only get to see the cars, they get to ride in them. In fact, Mayflower Tours has a program where all such clients are picked up and driven to dinner in a classic American automobile.

In fact, the People-to-People trips—also offered by the likes of Abercrombie & Kent, Collette Vacations, Globus, Insight Cuba, Tauck and Travcoa— now offer some concessions that clients were not privy to before the December 17 news. For example, Stachnik told us their customers are now allowed to bring back Cuban rum and cigars, something that was forbidden on these trips prior to December 17.

“Why now? Go before change. It’s not quite the taking down of the Berlin Wall, but it’s probably on a personal level, just as impactful to the local people. You can be part of history,” said David Morris, owner of David Morris International (DMI), in a written release.

Renee Radabaugh, managing director for Cuba Explorations, the company that is working with DMI on its People-to-People trips, believes it will be a while before Cuba changes, but expressed in a written statement her feeling that, “You should go to experience the country in a pure state before commercialization takes over.”

Mayflower Tours, which was granted a license by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control last summer, offers its People-to-People program to Cuba for $4,199 per person. The nine-day itinerary includes 20 meals, several of which will be had at Cuban “paladars,” privately-owned and operated restaurants which add to the flavor of the visit; all meal gratuities; round-trip transfers between Miami hotel and airport; non-stop charter flights from Miami to Cuba and return; baggage fee for the Miami to Cuba flight and airport transfers in Miami and Cuba.

In addition, clients are accompanied by an English-speaking Cuban guide and participate in many cultural activities, including interaction with locals and traveling in Cuba’s antique car fleet. All gifts and gratuities for these experiences are included. Good to know: Travelers have the ability to purchase Travelers Protection coverage that is also valid in Cuba.

“We love offering the People-to-People trips and hope we can do so for as long as we can, but we also know that once Cuba opens to everyone, we will have a major advantage,” says Stachnik.“Mainly, what everyone who has been selling these trips to Cuba has that other operators don’t is credibility. We now have credibility selling Cuba as do all the operators who obtained a license [to sell People-to-People travel]. It is going to be an enormous advantage to have.”