HAVANA, August 19 It was mid-May, and independent tour consultant Frank Slater found himself leading his 22nd tour of Cuba, guiding a group at Vinca La Figia, Ernest Hemingway’s home from 1939 to 1960 in the village of San Francisco de Paula, about 9 miles outside Havana. Now a museum, it is a popular tourist stop for most visitors to Cuba.
Slater was serving as tour director on Friendly Planet’s nine-day people-to-people “Colors of Cuba” itinerary, similar to the company’s popular “Discover Havana” but a few days longer, with more stops.
Although Slater consults for multiple tour operators, this was his second Cuba tour in May with Friendly Planet, with two more slated for June. His travels in 22 years have taken him to 90 countries, and Cuba has become a favorite. He recently calculated that in the previous 30 months, “one out of every six days of my life has been in Cuba. I love it here. … I take photos on every trip, and I always see something new.”
Over his almost three years visiting the island, he has seen the Cuban market grow to the point that qualified tour guides are getting much harder to find. As more tour companies come onboard, he said, they are “driving up the need for more certified tour directors to accompany these tours, plus the additional need for Cuban professional guides.”
The most recent entrants in the crowded field of companies offering people-to-people programs include Central Holidays and Apple Vacations.
What has prepared Slater for his work in Cuba are his experiences from 20-plus years of working both as a tour guide (a local expert who leads groups around his or her own city or state) and as a tour director (an expert who accompanies groups from start to finish from city to city, state to state and country to country, working with tour operators).
From September to June, months when he generally is not traveling the world, he divides his time between his grandkids in Denver and serving as CEO of the Denver-based International Guide Academy (IGA), of which his son, Daniel, is president.
In business since 1973, the IGA has certified hundreds of guides and tour directors for placement with numerous tour operators whose itineraries span the globe.
The pace of travel to Cuba has accelerated since December, when President Obama loosened travel restrictions. That pace can be seen in visitor numbers, which in June alone topped 218,000, a 20.6% increase over June 2014, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information.
While the figures did not include a breakdown of U.S. visitors, the year is shaping up to be a record-breaker and is expected to top the record 3 million visitors last year.
“What has prepared me for work in Cuba is my knowledge of managing tours over the years,” Slater said. “I prepared for my tours in Cuba with extensive reading, website research and watching videos about Cuba to learn about the history, culture, food, geography, political situations and the like. This is what all tour managers should do when assigned a new location.”
U.S. tour operators generally contract with a Cuban tour company for the services of a local guide who accompanies the tour director and the group. Slater said one of the Cuban companies is San Cristobal, a government-run travel agency whose guides specialize in Old Havana and are particularly knowledgeable regarding the restorations and rebuilding projects in the old city.
“San Cristobal’s guides are great,” Slater said. “They all have gone through an extensive training program with their company for all of Cuba, not just Havana.”
What Slater looks for in a Cuban guide is “good teamwork, friendly, flexible and supportive of each other, and this has been the case with all the San Cristobal guides with whom I’ve worked.”
He said, “Our curriculum does change over the years in order to keep up to date with the changing demographics of travelers. About 20% of our instructors have worked in Cuba, so many of the examples in our training courses and classes are about activity and tours in Cuba.”
To meet growing demand, the IGA has added certification programs this year and will add still more in 2016.
“Additional classes and locations where our courses are taught have been added due to the increased demand from people looking to work as tour directors,” Slater said. “While a few have Cuba on their horizon as a place to work, their entry into the industry is not based solely on Cuba.”
Tour directors don’t teach the destination, he said, but they do help transition passengers from culture to culture on a multi-country trip.
“Most people are disposed to have a good time, to learn and take in new experiences,” Slater said. “The Cuba traveler in particular is well-educated, well-traveled and knows the guidelines, follows the rules and is eager to see everything.”
While travel to Cuba has been evolving quickly, Slater said he feels that other changes will come slowly.
“I suspect it will be a longer time than most think before all the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “Once lifted, I expect to see U.S. investments in Cuba, but I believe it will be over years.”
As the embargo is lifted, he said, “I believe that the Cuban people will see positive improvements in access to medicines, foods, the Internet, goods and services, which are now affected by the embargo.”
Several tour operators said they are seeing a shortage of tour guides in Cuba, “let alone good tour guides,” in the words of Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours USA.
“At Ya’lla, we have a pool of excellent guides, between eight and 10 of them, all young, dynamic and very dedicated, and we have never experienced that shortage,” Paldi said. “In peak season, when other companies were subjected to Spanish-speaking guides with an English translator, we kept running our operation with our guides both for groups and FITs, as we do all the time.”
Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, agreed that shortages of Cuban tour guides, “especially high-quality guides,” are real.
“There also is a shortage of tour leaders who accompany the groups,” he said. “Both shortages are due to the increased demand from groups and new entrants into the marketplace.”
Insight Cuba’s longtime presence, said Popper, “gives us a leg up regarding access to the best resources, including restaurant reservations, hotel rooms, Cuban tour guides and U.S. tour leaders. We fortunately are not experiencing any shortages.”
Popper said that Cubans value established relationships with individuals and companies and provide the necessary resources to those companies first. Moreover, he said, the country’s leaders understand the burden that the increased demand has placed on the tourism infrastructure.
“Cuba is adapting, but training new guides and finding seasoned guides takes time,” he said. “They also need to experience leading groups of Americans so they can better understand the preferences of the American market.”
Friendly Planet launched its people-to-people programs to Cuba in 2011, and since then, “we’ve become experts at building relationships within the destination, from securing the best accommodations to sourcing local cultural experiences and activities,” said President Peggy Goldman.
These relationships have also enabled the company to work with well-informed tour directors and guides.
“We’ve not had any shortage of experts to lead our programs in Cuba, but I expect that newer entries to the market may face challenges due to increased competition,” Goldman said. “Many of our directors and guides come to us through referrals from existing tourism entities in Cuba as well as our association with the International Guide Academy.”
When Tauck launched its Cuba programs in 2012, the company used tour directors (or Tauck directors) already on staff who were fluent in Spanish.
“We’ve had no issues in sourcing local guides,” said Katharine Bonner, senior vice president. “There is a strong supply in Cuba who speak excellent English, and large numbers have university degrees in American history.”
She pointed out that being a local guide for American groups is a sought-after job in Cuba, as local guides can make more money than many other Cubans.