Cuban tour operators jumping to meet new US demand

 havana-live-capitolHAVANA, 26 January  Cuban tour operators are gearing up for an explosion of US travellers — adding a spate of tours focused on everything from architecture to art to gourmet food — following the recent detente between the two long-time Cold War rivals.

Travel company InsightCuba, one of the top agencies specializing in visits to the Communist-run island, now offers a six-day jaunt to Havana and Matanzas to listen to jazz and meet the musicians. Cuban-American chef Douglas Rodriguez, lives in Miami, meanwhile, has 20 spots available for travelers who want to be immersed “in Cuba’s contemporary art and culinary scene” in Havana and elsewhere on the island, with “interactions and discussions with artists and chefs.”

Washington last week announced it was lifting a series of commercial and travel restrictions as part of the historic rapprochement with Cuba after a half-century embargo and diplomatic relations ruptured since 1961. But although travellers will no longer be required to seek authorization before embarking for Havana, the trips remain restricted — so tourists can’t just hop on a plane hoping to sip mojitos on the beach. Instead, travel to the island must fit into one of 12 categories, including family visits, research, journalism, education, religion, or cultural exchange. Travel agents say they are already seeing a strong increase in demand for the Cuba tours.

“The phone has not stopped ringing,” said Collin Laverty, director of Cuba Educational Travel, speaking by phone from Cuba. Since the company started operating three years ago, it has brought 5,000 people to Cuba. Laverty said they hope to match that number this year alone. “We are getting all these emails from people saying ‘I want to get there before McDonald’s’,” he said, noting that two US groups were expected this week. “We added 70 tour dates after Obama’s announcement … in response to the demand,” added Tom Popper, of Insight Cuba.

‘Throw away stereotypes’ 
Any rise in tourism on the island will be hampered by a lack of infrastructure, which is already at maximum capacity, tour operators. However, the travel agents say this actually provides an opportunity — motivating them to approach residents to help fill the gaps. “These tours, what they do, is to get people of both countries together, and they learn about each others culture, history and way of living, and that leads to respect,” said Silvia Wilhelm, president of CubaPuentes, a Texas travel agency specializing in cultural and architectural tours in Cuba.
“You throw away all these stereotypes that both people have been hearing from each other for 50 plus years,” she said. But not everyone is happy to see travel between the United States and Cuba increase. Some say that injecting fresh capital into the island’s economy will only help the Castro government hold on to power.

“This is a windfall for the Castro regime that will be used to fund its repression against Cubans, as well as its activities against U.S. national interests in Latin America and beyond,” said Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, shortly after the new rules were announced.