Since President Barack Obama loosened restrictions on Cuba travel Jan. 16, travelers have been eager to explore the island nation.
“We are seeing an even bigger surge in interest,” says Lindsay White, sales manager for National Geographic Expeditions. “To meet the demand for travel to Cuba, we’ve recently added new dates, with more than 40 trips departing through June 2016.”
“With the President’s announcement we are engaged with our land and hotel partners in Cuba to obtain space for additional departures through 2016 so that we can meet the high demand for the destination,” notes Terri Burke, director, national accounts for Globus.
How can Americans go to Cuba legally?
Americans wanting to visit Cuba no longer need a special government license. But it’s not as easy as hopping on a plane. General Cuba travel is still not allowed.
U.S. visitors need to fit into one of 12 categories:
- Family visits
- Government and intergovernmental business
- Journalistic activities
- Professional research and meetings
- Educational activities
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of foundations, research, or educational institutions
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information
- Certain export transactions
Americans on an approved trip can use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba, once banks in both countries develop systems to work together. They can also bring back up to $400 in souvenirs (including $100 worth of alcohol or tobacco, including Cuban cigars).
U.S. air carriers have not started direct flights to Cuba. Katharine Bonner, vice president, River & Small Ship Cruising at Tauck, points out that scheduled flights won’t be available for some time. Slots are limited, Cuban airports are small, and US carries will have to be granted rights for the routes. U.S.-flagged cruise lines are still prohibited from stopping in Cuba; only Congress can change that.
Which companies are licensed for Cuba travel?
Nine Virtuoso partners are licensed to operate trips to Cuba:
- Abercrombie & Kent
- International Expeditions
- National Geographic Expeditions
- Zegrahm Expeditions
Working through a Virtuoso travel advisor who specializes in Cuba can ensure you’re getting the vacation you want.
Who’s traveling to Cuba?
Tour operators emphasize that Cuba is not your typical sun-and-sand Caribbean destination.
“We see a surge in interest among baby boomers – those folks who were school children during the Cuban missile crisis and are very curious to meet Cubans and see the country,” explains Tauck’s Bonner.
“Our Globus programs are for people who are interested in active learning and meeting and interacting with people from a different culture,” Burke comments. “The interactions we facilitate have allowed Americans and Cubans to speak freely to each other and learn about each other’s lives, education, careers, families and hopes for the future. The participants in our Cuba programs have engaged with Cuban people in a way that is very meaningful and not always possible when traveling on your own to a foreign land.”
What activities do Cuba travel experiences emphasize?
Licensed operators need to provide a “people-to-people” itinerary, where Americans are able to get acquainted with Cubans, their history, their artistic traditions and their culture.
“Participants in a people-to-people program should be prepared that they are not traditional tourists to Cuba,” advises Burke. “These activities are thoroughly engaging and the types of experiences that have made many of our travelers say that their Globus trip to Cuba was one of the best of their life!”
Cuba travel tineraries could include:
- Going to a club to enjoy authentic music
- Enjoying a ride in 1950s cars
- Meals at locally owned small private restaurants
- Playing baseball and discuss the love of the game with Cuban players
- Meeting members of the Camaguey Ballet Company and talking to them about upcoming productions
- A visit to a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site to learn about the 19th century sugar industry
- Walking through Old Havana with an architect
- Sampling coffee after learning about the drink’s rich history in Cuba
- Interacting with artists and artisans such as traditional potters
- Meeting cigar factory workers
- Birding excursions with local naturalists
- Visiting an organic farm and talking with the farmers
What should visitors expect in Cuba?
In this year’s Virtuoso Luxe Report, Cuba was one of the top three emerging destinations named by advisors. Its ability to handle travelers on a large scale is also emerging. “There is still limited infrastructure in Cuba – and that won’t change in the foreseeable future. Hotels are limited – especially in the 3* plus category,” states Bonner.
“Cuba is not yet equipped to handle large numbers of American visitors due to limited hotel space, limited transportation options, and limited guides. There is still a long way to go (possibly several years) until the infrastructure is in place,” Burke observes.
“Cuba’s largely undiscovered tourism market is what makes this destination truly magical,” comments White of National Geographic Expeditions. “It can also mean slower service and standards, which are not conducive to travelers’ expectations while abroad. Maintaining a sense of humor and adventurous spirit will help travelers enjoy their experience in Cuba to its fullest.”
Why should you go to Cuba now?
Cuba travel has consistently been a top seller for licensed suppliers. With the U.S. policy shift, that popularity is expected to grow.
“I would encourage consumers to plan travel now – while ‘Authentica Cuba’ still exists,” says Tauck’s Bonner.
“Its long isolation from the modern world is what makes this destination truly magical,” observes White of National Geographic. “Curious travelers want to experience this country that appears frozen in time before it changes forever.”