Special-interest group tours are becoming a popular way to experience Cuba. // © 2015 Ken Shapiro
Feature image (above): Cuba was off-limits to U.S. travelers for decades, and many travelers are looking for new ways to explore the island. // © 2015 Ken Shapiro
Mona Robertson, a tour manager for Latour, has made dozens of trips to Cuba, yet she still makes discoveries from time to time.
On a recent Latour itinerary, Shalom Cuba, which is designed around Jewish history and heritage in Cuba, the group was visiting a synagogue in Havana when two cousins on the tour found old photographs of their uncle and other family.
“It was an amazing discovery,” Robertson said. “And it felt like a very personal thing for the whole group. It was a great feeling for everyone.”
Due to its off-limit status for U.S. visitors for so many years, Cuba holds a lot of mystery for travelers. And whether your clients are interested in education, medicine, religion, music, food or gay and lesbian identity, they can find a special-interest group tour related to these topics.
Latour, like a lot of tour operators going to Cuba, sees these groups as a hot market for suppliers as well as travel agents.
“Shalom Cuba was important to us because, traditionally, our core clients were travelers to Israel,” said Richard Krieger, president of Isramworld, which includes the Latour brand. “We felt that if you are going to be in Cuba and want to experience Jewish life there, certainly no tour operator is better equipped to give you that experience than Isramworld.”
According to Krieger, the tour has been very popular, and the responses from clients after they get back from the trip have been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, he credits a lot of the company’s financial success in Cuba to the special-interest groups it offers.
“While we started out with three core programs, we began to receive calls from people who wanted to do their own groups,” Krieger said. “So we’ve done ad hoc groups of cyclists, photographers, yoga enthusiasts and more. We’re able to match them with counterparts in Cuba.”
These groups sometimes give travelers the added push they need to try out an exotic destination such as Cuba. The opportunity to visit one of the most talked-about places — and immerse oneself in a topic that is of personal interest while in the company of others who also share that passion — makes for an unbeatable combination, Krieger says.
“While Cuba might eventually be a sun and sand destination, right now it’s a cultural experience for travelers,” Krieger said. “It’s a journey in the true sense of the word.”
One of the tour operator’s most unique groups is focused on the LGBT community in Cuba. Krieger says he has been especially pleased by the warm reaction from partners in Cuba and overwhelmed by the kindness of the robust LGBT community there.
“The people who have gone on our tours and have experienced this community have probably been the most touched and changed by this experience,” Krieger said. “We met the first transsexual person in Cuba, as well as the most recent transsexual person waiting to complete their medical procedure. It was an eye-opener for guests.”