Travel Weekly: Tour Operators Remind Public It's Still Possible to Visit Cuba

As the cruise industry scrambled to adjust schedules in the wake of President Trump's ban on sailings to Cuba, some tour operators were dusting off campaigns intended to make it clear to travel advisors and the public that the island nation remains accessible to Americans.

While there were early concerns that all the headlines and confusion about the ban would lead to a drop in bookings, some Cuba operators said last week that they were seeing a boost in interest, including from people whose cruises had been canceled.

Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, said his company has been proactive in reaching out to past, current and potential clients to explain the changes. He said his group also had partnerships with two cruise lines that have been sending him customers.

"We've had dozens of small and large groups that were planning on visiting by cruise ship reach out," he said. "And we've rebooked them with compliant land programs that allow them to visit and see Cuba now, often the original draw that had them sign up for the cruise."

Likewise, the president of Apple Vacations, John Tarkowski, said Apple was "actively educating travel advisors through social media and other avenues of communication so that they in turn could educate the consumer" that the Cuba packages Apple offers under the "support for the Cuban people" category remain legal.

Apple also plans to develop tours that "are designed to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba or promote the Cuban people's independence from Cuban authorities."

"There is still high demand for Cuba," Tarkowski said, "and Apple Vacations will continue to offer opportunities for American travelers to interact with Cuban culture in compliance with [Office of Foreign Assets Control] regulations."

Still, there were plenty of questions and uncertainty about exactly what travel has been banned, leading some agencies and operators who were doing business under the people-to-people category to stop taking new bookings. Some agencies ordered advisors to stop booking all Cuba travel.

U.S. Tour Operators Association president Terry Dale said that sorting out Cuba would be at the top of the trade group's priorities when it takes members to Washington next week for its annual congressional caucus.

"In fact, James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, will be one of the guest speakers," Dale said. "We believe more clarification and direction will come from our time on the Hill."

Terry Beaty, CEO of Regency Travel in Memphis, who for the past 10 years has led mostly art-related Cuba trips, said he had talked to three major tour operators "that had almost weekly [departures] coming up for Cuba going into perpetuity, but they no longer are even taking deposits on future trips."

For example, he said, "I talked to Tauck this morning, who's a high-end provider, and they stopped officially ... taking deposits for future trips. And that's a huge blow to the traveling public, because they found security, and they knew they were going to get good hotels and that sort of thing through a vendor like Tauck."

Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president of Tauck Land Journeys, said the details of the new rules weren't clear enough for the company to comfortably take new bookings but that "we're continuing to monitor the situation and will keep our guests informed as we learn more."

Likewise, the Globus family of brands, which ran trips under the people-to-people category, said it will operate those trips booked prior to June 5 as allowed under the new restrictions, but it has stopped taking new bookings.

Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, said his company will continue to actively promote and lead trips under the "support for the Cuban people" license category. 

"This category allows for any American to legally travel to Cuba, provided that their daily activities result in meaningful interactions with the Cuban people, which is a travel industry trend many travelers already embrace," he said. 

Additionally, he said, "InsightCuba is offering its program lineup to include Boutique Residences. These are generally centrally located, charming, full-service, fully renovated residences with modern amenities, and it is one of the best ways to experience Cuba. We've already been offering the option for guests to stay in our boutique residences for many years, with great success."

David Lee, owner of Cultural Cuba, said his company has launched a campaign to let agents and the public know that its private, custom tours remain legal. 

"We are utilizing email blasts, social media, face-to-face meetings with our travel agency partners and, of course, daily conversations with media," Lee said. 

And while Beaty said he expected interest in travel to Cuba to wane in light of the administration's latest policy changes, Popper said that with so many changes and headlines and misinformation about travel to Cuba in recent years, "the traveling public and travel agents seemingly bounce back more quickly each time."

He said InsightCuba's website traffic showed a spike on June 4 and 5, when restrictions were announced.

"What's interesting about this spike in web traffic is that visitors visited our tour pages rather than informational pages commonly associated with news cycles involving Cuba, meaning people were shopping for travel options," he said. 

The latest restrictions, he said, present "the perfect situation for travel advisors to create value for their clients."

"But it's important for travel advisors to find the right tour operator that knows how to operate in a regulatory environment and Cuba," Popper said. "Our goal is to make selling Cuba simple and easy for advisors and for them to know they can count on us to handle all regulatory requirements as well as logistics in-country."

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