As Cuban travel restrictions ease for U.S. travellers, tour operators become more important than ever

Posted: 05-May-16 10:09

Despite the fact that longstanding travel restrictions to Cuba have recently been eased, many travel experts agree it is vital that tour operators stay involved in helping Americans book trips to the island. From navigating local hotel bookings to restaurants, a website focused on deciphering travel trends points to the important role travel agencies play in shaping how Americans view Cuba.

As Cuban travel restrictions ease for U.S. travellers, tour operators become more important than ever

While just one month ago the U.S. government cleared the way for American travellers to plan their own people-to-people tours to Cuba in lieu of group tours, most travel experts agree it won’t be easy for U.S. citizens to legally visit the island on their own.

Skift, a website focused on defining and analysing worldwide travel trends, recently published an article by writer Dan Peltier, scrutinising the new travel freedom afforded to Americans. U.S. visitors must still attend “people-to-people” activities, such as cultural meetings and seminars with Cuban locals. However, as Peltier suggests, it is very difficult for American travellers to arrange these meetings on their own or find these locals without a tour operator’s help, many of whom already have exclusive relationships with Cuban organisations and businesses.

David Lee, owner of Cultural Cuba, leads small groups of travellers from the United States to Cuba. He tells Peltier he’s arranged plenty of trips based on the specific interests of travellers, such as Cuban rum and cigars, and the activities he plans often become the most memorable of the entire trip. Lee maintains there’s a real need out there.

“Cuba isn’t really ready yet to be an unguided destination. Even if you could just completely go without restrictions, you’re not going to get as much out of going to Cuba right now without a good Cuban tour guide.”

With an increased demand from travellers, Lee adds that even the hot Cuban summer is no longer considered an off-season. As well, he says, most of his Cuban tours are sold out months ahead of time, including the rainy/hurricane season of August to October.

To support the influx of new travellers, Peltier quotes another travel company discussing the trouble in making dining reservations or even eating a meal at restaurants that are not large enough to handle big crowds.

In recounting one particular trip, Edward Piegza of Classic Journeys told the writer,

“I remember sitting down with a group in one of these restaurants and the chef comes to the table to tell me that they have 10 entrees available that night. I said, ‘that’s great.’ Then he told me, ‘no’, I mean we only have 10 plates of food available,’ and there were more than 10 people in my group.”

Peltier adds that booking a hotel room can be difficult too, because most hotel bookings are done through the Cuban government. To add to this, the author reports, an additional 108,000 new hotel rooms are planned by the end of 2030 to accommodate the increasing number of travellers. Mostly, travel experts say, those rooms will probably be in tourist-friendly locations like beach resorts, golf courses and marinas. Those are places that are still, by some accounts, off-limits to American travellers, though that could change in the near future if the embargo is completely lifted.

To help U.S. travellers more easily navigate the most current restrictions, some tour operators are beginning to create more individualised tours. In addition to this, a recent announcement from the Obama Administration allows for American tour companies to work with their choice of Cuban counterparts, whereas there used to be just three.

The future, experts like Piegza tell Skift, is contingent somewhat on who the next American President is and on whether Congress lifts the decades-old trade embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba.

“This is a movement that won’t be turned back. It might go faster or it might go slower but we already have a direction in which it is going. My gut is that we’ve gone so far now that regardless of whoever wins on whichever side of the aisle, we’ll keep moving forward.”


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