Music is central to Cuban culture, and there are many opportunities to experience live performances. // © 2015 IStock
Feature image (above): Old Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. // © 2015 IStock
It’s the first meeting of our tour group, held in a conference room at a hotel about five minutes from the Miami airport, and I’m already wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. The next morning, we’ll board a charter plane and make the short flight to Havana as part of the nine-day Hello Cuba itinerary from Latour. Mona Robertson, our trip leader, has just given us a list of things that we can expect to do without over the course of our trip: Wi-Fi access, cellphones, credit cards, vegetables, ice cream, tissues and, at times, electricity. She explains that shortages are common in Cuba, that technology there is not what we’re used to back home and that we have to be extra careful about the sanitary conditions of the food, and some members of the group push back, reluctant to accept her guidance.
“Look people, you can do without a salad for eight days,” she finally said. “This is Cuba. You’re going on an adventure. This is all part of it.”
I was sure that Robertson’s blunt declaration would put people off and turn them against the trip. I was totally wrong. By the end of our time in Cuba — despite problems and inconveniences — many in our group were talking about when they would return for their next visit.
“I thought it was an excellent trip, and it met all our expectations,” said Phil Marzullo, a member of the tour group from New Jersey. “I was thrilled to be there before everything starts to change.”
Many in the group felt compassion for the country.
“It was interesting, stimulating, different,” said New York City-based Thomas Kalman. “The ‘stuck in time’ aspect of the country made a lasting impression. I feel great sadness about its potential and the decades of lost progress in the service of a flawed ideology.”
This kind of emotional reaction is common, says Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours USA, one of the first companies to offer Cuba itineraries in 2002.
“Cuba is a highly emotional destination,” Paldi said. “I’ve been to Cuba 28 times since 2001, and every time I have tears in my eyes when I leave because I know how resilient the Cubans are, how brave they are and how hopeful they are.”
The destination has a special place in the imaginations of U.S. travelers in particular.
“Cuba has been a mystery for two generations of Americans, and now that the doors are opening, we have our chance to experience it,” said Steve Born, vice president of marketing at Globus Family of Brands. “After all, travel is about new discoveries and expanding horizons, and Cuba represents a perfect opportunity to do that.”
Indeed, Cuba is not your typical sun-and-sand Caribbean getaway.
“In Cuba, you will have a robust itinerary of cultural experiences, and you may be exhausted,” said Richard Krieger, president of Isramworld, which includes the Latour brand. “But it’s important that agents let their clients know that they are going on a journey — it’s not necessarily even a ‘vacation.’ It’s truly an adventure where you are touched by the destination and its people.”
What Suppliers Are Saying
Travelers’ enthusiasm for Cuba has led to a seemingly endless bounty of new offerings from suppliers. While visitor numbers are difficult to verify, most tour operators and Cuban travel representatives I spoke with say Cuba business is up anywhere from 40 to 60 percent year over year.
Cuba already had major infrastructure obstacles to overcome, but with this dramatic increase in tourism, those problems have been magnified.
“Travel to Cuba is easier these days in terms of U.S. regulations,” Paldi said. “But the infrastructure in the country hasn’t changed in a long time, even while the demand is growing rapidly. That means there are no new hotel rooms, no new buses, no new tour guides, no new parking lots — the list goes on.”
Partly because of these obstacles, some suppliers are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“At The Travel Corporation, we will be watching the development of the Cuban tourism infrastructure with a view to operating there in the future,” said president Richard Launder. “Trafalgar Tours, Insight Vacations and Contiki Tours have extensive North, Central and South American travel products, and we are currently focusing on those destinations. We look forward to a time when Cuba will also be on that list.”
While tour operators have the advantage of being able to operate in a destination with a relatively limited investment, hotels and resorts are less flexible. Adam Stewart, CEO of Sandals Resorts, however, sees signs that the Cuban government has a strong desire for a balanced portfolio of offerings that can include luxury all-inclusives such as Sandals.
“Sandals is a Jamaica-based company, so Cuba is our neighbor,” Stewart said. “We are a leader in the luxury all-inclusive market, and we are excited about Cuba’s desire to be a luxury destination. We definitely have the country on our radar.”
What to Expect Now
Most of the tour groups operating in Cuba today participate in “people-to-people ambassador” programs sanctioned by the U.S. government. (Ya’lla offers individual customized FIT travel, but that is the exception.) As such, itineraries must include opportunities for U.S. visitors to meet with Cuban citizens and learn about their culture. While this is a government regulation, Krieger of Latour and other operators see it as one of the destination’s greatest assets.
“At Latour, we wanted to create immersive experiences, not as part of a government requirement, but as the heart of what we’re offering,” he said. “It’s not just sitting on a bus, going to a museum and heading home. You get the opportunity to meet artists, activists and local people and really have a meaningful conversation.”
On my tour, we visited a middle school outside Havana and attended a music and dance performance by the students. Another day, we visited a dance studio and took salsa lessons from professional dancers. We also met with university students, learned about a community-service project run by artists and musicians, visited a senior center and much more. These experiences were certainly highlights of the trip.
“We were very excited about meeting the schoolchildren, senior citizens, artists and musicians,” Marzullo said. “They taught us a lot about the spirit and resiliency of the Cuban people.”
Globus’ Born said feedback on these types of experiences has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The people-to-people experiences featuring Cuba’s culture, lifestyle and personalities have blown away expectations,” he said.
In between these visits, we were able to tour major tourist attractions, including Old Havana; Museum of the Revolution; the town of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Ernest Hemingway’s house; and more. It was a busy itinerary that left little downtime.
When it came to our accommodations in Havana, our group felt fortunate to stay at the comfortable and functional Melia Cohiba hotel. The rooms were modern, the Wi-Fi worked in the lobby, the breakfast had plenty of choices and service at the property was excellent. The hotel’s on-site nightclub featured shows by the iconic Buena Vista Social Club.
Outside Havana, however, there were logistical issues and the accommodations were more rustic, though adequate. According to Latour’s Robertson, sometimes hotel rooms that are reserved suddenly disappear.
“Things always change in Cuba,” she said. “That’s pretty much why I’m here.”
In fact, one of the benefits of using a tour operator is the on-the-ground support of destination experts such as Robertson. Throughout our trip, she personally inspected every hotel room before our group arrived, advocated for us when dealing with sudden changes by the Cuban representatives and made sure the group dynamic worked for everyone. It was exhausting just watching her work.
“While Cuba is a great destination, there is a good chance groups will hit a speed bump along the way,” Krieger said. “When we looked at who would represent Latour in Cuba, we knew we needed big personalities with a huge skill set.”
When it came to the culinary aspect of the trip, for the most part, the food was just adequate. Clients expecting the variety of Cuban food found in U.S. cities will be disappointed. Exceptions to this — and a highlight of our tour — were the offerings in the country’s paladares. These are privately owned restaurants often run out of a private home. In addition to having better food, the paladares inspired intense discussions with local entrepreneurs.
“Everyone loves the dining experience in these private homes,” Krieger said. “They are authentic Cuban establishments.”
Advice for Agents
Suppliers have plenty of advice for agents. To begin with, it is necessary for travel agents to carefully consider the personality of their client.
“Cuba is for anybody who is a traveler in the true sense of the word — not a tourist,” said Peggy Goldman, co-owner of Friendly Planet Travel.
Born noted that visitors must be aware that they may be taken out of their comfort zone at times.
“Cuba appeals to a wide variety of travelers,” he said. “But it’s not right for those expecting modern, American-style hotels and amenities.”
Cuba is expensive, but visitors looking for a luxury vacation are sure to be disappointed.
“The key to being happy with travel to Cuba is preparation,” said April Springer, Cuba destination manager for International Expeditions. “Any company or agent that isn’t upfront with guests about conditions in Cuba is doing their client a huge disservice.”
According to suppliers, another key is booking with a trustworthy company. With so many complicated regulations and on-the-ground changes, Cuba is a challenge for even the best operator. Plus, the competition for unique encounters can be fierce.
“New companies in Cuba will simply have trouble finding space and finding options for unique people-to-people experiences,” Goldman said.
Ultimately, agents need to educate themselves on the present and future state of tourism in this quirky but iconic travel destination. Putting in that effort now can pay off for many years to come.