Cuba rush intensifies

havana-live-iberostar-parque-centralHotel Parque Central Havana

HAVANA, 25 December  The mad rush to Cuba just became even more intense. Before President Obama’s speech last week indicating a move toward normalization of relations with Cuba, the demand for travel to the forbidden island was so strong, tour operators were selling out every departure almost as quickly as they could put them on the market.

Now, almost unbelievably, the hunger for Cuba seems to have become even more voracious. And tour operators are scrambling to prepare take full advantage of the expansion of opportunity to provide a greater variety of travel options to Cuba. “The news is incredible,” said Tom Popper, president of insightCuba, a tour operator specializing in tours of Cuba.
“Bookings, web traffic, inquiries and everything are soaring off the charts.” Although it’s still probably weeks ahead of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) release of its revised rules to comply with President Obama’s executive order, tour operators seem sure of one thing. The business of travel to Cuba will expand.

Starting practically from the moment Obama’s announcement last Thursday, tour operators have sent out a flurry of announcements and press releases about their plans to expand their offerings for travel to Cuba. “This historic development reflects enormous potential to have a positive impact on tourism to Cuba and in turn give American travelers the opportunity to experience first-hand the rich Cuban culture,” said Richard Krieger, president of Isramworld, in a statement.

“We are already on the ground working with our Cuban partners prepared to welcome more tourists as this situation progresses. Until then, our current programs are operating in full swing and more popular than ever.” No one can be entirely sure how the newly revised regulations from OFAC will read. But it seems sure that the changes will open the gates for travel to Cuba a little wider.
“We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events,” said Peggy Goldman, president of Friendly Planet Travel, in a statement.

“For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.” The Globus family of brands, one of the world’s largest tour operators, released a statement the day of the President’s announcement.

“President Obama’s announcement today that the United States will ease travel restrictions to Cuba is exciting news,” said Pam Hoffee, VP of product and operations for Globus. “At this time it is unclear what exactly this means, and most importantly how it will affect the people-to-people educational exchange programs being offered by tour operators like ourselves.
We certainly support any measures that will open travel to Cuba and ease the process of obtaining the license required. The process is cumbersome, but worth it in the end.” While the embargo remains in place until an act of Congress lifts it, and no changes in regulations will go into effect until OFAC releases its new rules, some things seem certain.

One of them is that now that Cuba has been lifted from the list of terrorist nations, normal banking relations can be established. “President Obama’s announcement today also states that some banking will be possible in Cuba, which will ease a fundamental challenge for our participants when traveling to Cuba,” said Hoffee. “The ability to use debit cards in the country will eliminate the burden of planning ahead and carrying all of the cash you may need for your trip with you from the United States.

There is also a proposed change allowing travelers a higher import limit and the ability to bring back rum and cigars, certainly a popular souvenir from Cuba that is currently prohibited when participating in a people-to-people program.” New tour operator entries into the market are thanking their lucky stars and hopping on the Cuba bandwagon even more eagerly than before. David Morris International (DMI), a luxury provider of travel, cemented a partnership with Cuba Explorations to enable it offer programs in Cuba in 2015.

“Now is the time to go, before outside influences inevitably change Havana and the Cuban people as they are today,” said David Morris, in a company statement. “Havana is unspoiled – some of it for the good and some for the bad. Travelers on our program get to see a truthful, authentic experience. On many levels, it is a time capsule set in the ’50s and ’60s that only a few have seen.”
Because all travel to Cuba is so tightly regulated by OFAC, there is a great deal of uniformity in the programs that can be offered. Each day, for example, must include four qualified people-to-people activities. Because the regulations require operators to focus on people-to-people encounters, all operators of tours to Cuba, in effect, are running cultural tours with deep immersion and personal contact with locals. However, it happens that this is the direction the tour market is going anyway, everywhere in the world.

But even though the regulations require a certain similarity among all the programs, each operator brings its own twist. “We go out to an organic farm where you see all the ingredients are locally grown and harvested and go literally, farm to table so you see everything from the goat’s milk, to the fish,” said Morris. “Programs like this go above and beyond.”

DMI offers a program that explores Jewish history in Cuba, with a visit to a Holocaust museum and a House of Jewish Settlers and Synagogue. InsightCuba, which claims the distinction of being the first operator to offer people to people tours during the Clinton administration, added more than 70 additional departures to its calendars for 2015 and 2016 after the presidential initiative.
InsightCuba offers six itineraries for Cuba, including a 13-day/12 night Undiscovered Cuba, and a specialty music tour called Jazz in Havana. “President Obama said that he believes in the power of people-to-people engagement,” said insightCuba’s Popper. “I couldn’t agree more.”