Cuba is facing a tourism tsunami as Americans who can more easily visit the island rush to experience a frozen-in-time culture before it disappears.
More than two months after President Barack Obama first announced that travel restrictions to the communist island nation would be eased and several weeks after the release of less-stringent regulations, tour operators say inquiries and bookings have shot up while more travel providers have waded into the mix.
“There’s a sense of urgency from travelers,” said Collin Laverty, owner of Cuba Educational Travel in Washington, D.C. “People feel that it’s on the verge of opening, so they want to get there right away.”
Tom Popper, president of New York tour operator InsightCuba, said he returned from a trip to Cuba last week and was amazed by the number of Americans he encountered. The fresh interest comes during high season in Cuba, adding pressure to an already strained tourism infrastructure.
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“There were more than I’ve ever seen before,” said Popper, whose company has organized travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens since 2000. Since mid-December, his company has seen six times the web traffic and three times the bookings as normal for the same time of year, and the demand has shown no signs of waning.
“We had the President of the United States talk about people-to-people travel and the fact that you can go and that we want to make it easier,” Popper said. “After Dec. 17, tens of millions of people said, ‘Oh yeah, President Obama said I could go to Cuba.’”
Tourism is still prohibited, which means Americans have to wait for all travel restrictions to be lifted before they can lounge at a beach resort in Varadero or spend a weekend sampling mojitos and Cuban cigars. But on Jan. 15, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that citizens who fall under 12 categories of authorized travel — including educational activities, public performances, athletic competitions, support for the Cuban people and humanitarian projects — would not need to apply for a specific license to go to Cuba.
Travel agents and airlines can operate without a specific license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, a process that previously took months and mountains of paperwork, as long as travelers are going for authorized reasons.
“It’s kind of like a new normal,” said Popper.
This is what the new normal looks like for travel companies across the country: hundreds more calls every week, fresh rounds of questions and increased bookings from travelers eager to witness the island’s classic cars, historic architecture and cultural riches.
Normal, in today’s travel landscape, includes a Canadian cruise line now booking Americans for Cuban itineraries; hotel rooms in Havana popping up on Kayak.com and one-stop shopping for plane tickets to Cuba via Mexico on CheapAir.com.
And, in Cuba, it means fewer hotel rooms, tour guides and buses available to shuttle eager visitors around, not to mention a scarcity of airplane seats on the way there.
Joe Diaz, co-founder of travel media company AFAR Media, left for Havana on on a flight Jan. 16, the day the new regulations kicked in. Traveling through Panama City, he arrived the next day with nowhere to stay because hotels were full in prime tourist season. Cuba says it has about 63,000 rooms among hotels, motels, hostels and serviced apartments.
Diaz stayed at a private home for $30 a night — “clean, quiet, basic” with hot water and a comfortable bed — and got to know the family who lived there.
But he said he quickly realized that American travelers who are accustomed to Wi-Fi, working credit cards and functional infrastructure are probably not ready for the experience.
“Cuba is not for that luxury type traveler,” he said. “It’s for the more adventurous, experiential traveler.”
Bob Guild, vice president of travel agency Marazul Charters, said his groups have had to stay in private apartments recently instead of hotel rooms because beds are in such demand.
“There is more space than ever, but it’s all been taken up,” Guild said. “What are they going to do next season?”
Guild said Marazul, which has been providing travel to Cuba since 1979, is getting an average of 75-80 requests a day for information. In the two weeks after the regulations were released in January, 1,300 requests came in compared to 30 requests during the same time period in 2014.
“Nothing has really died down,” he said. “We are generally telling people that nothing is possible until next season, beginning in October. And there are people still trying to get in right now.”
Cuba Educational Travel’s Laverty said he is fielding last-minute requests, many from small groups of four to 10 people.
“Just in the last two days, we’ve booked three or four additional groups in the middle of March,” he said last week.
According to statistics from the Cuban government, 92,348 Americans visited in 2013, though that number does not include Cuban-Americans visiting family. About 3 million total visitors came to the country in 2014, and a new survey released Thursday indicates interest in future travel is high.
According to the travelhorizons survey released by marketing services firm MMGY Global, 46 percent of travelers from the U.S. who are likely to visit a Caribbean destination during the next two years would be willing to change their vacation plans to go to Cuba instead. And 19 percent of U.S. adults said they would consider taking a vacation to Cuba during the next two years. Questions about Cuba had never been included in the survey before.
Kim Cavendish, president and CEO of the Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale, has been thinking about making the short trip for “a long time,” she said. And just within the past week, she finally made arrangements for a people-to-people trip in April.
“I like to travel, I like to visit other cultures and see new places,” she said. “Cuba is something that’s what, 90 miles away? And yet we haven’t been allowed to go there for some time.”
With a small group, she will visit cultural sites, museums, community projects, a dolphin preserve and other locations to scout out the possibility of including Cuba in the museum’s adventure travel program in the next year or so.
She said she’s seen firsthand that the easing of restrictions doesn’t automatically translate to easy planning.
“I think this idea that we’re all going to be able to pop off to Cuba is still going to be in the future,” she said.
In the meantime, more travel companies are jumping in to help.
A spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents said there was “immediate interest” from members who wanted more information about selling travel to Cuba after the December and January announcements. The organization has scheduled an online seminar for March 11.
When the United States Tour Operators Association hosted a webinar on the subject in mid-February, more than 100 people listened in.
“I think everyone’s very interested in how do we get a piece of the action,” said Terry Dale, the association’s president and CEO. “Absolutely the needle has moved.”
With its partner ABC Charters, JetBlue is adding an additional weekly charter flight from Tampa to Havana in June. Kayak.com is now listing information on flights to Cuba and hotels, though it does not include booking links. Cuba Cruise, a Canadian cruise operator that launched in 2013, now promotes its trips around Cuba to Americans and American travel agents.
And the booking site CheapAir.com just added flights to Cuba to its search engine on Thursday, packaging trips from the U.S. that go through Mexico.
“Right after the announcements of the changes in regulation, we started seeing a big uptick in searches for Cuba,” from almost none to 50 or 60 searches a day, said CheapAir CEO Jeff Klee.
Still, travel agents say they expect demand to explode when travelers can set their own agendas free of any restrictions. Michelle Weller, director of operations for a Travel Leaders agency in Houston, wrote in an email that most people asking about travel don’t want a people-to-people tour.
“When Cuba can offer an atmosphere where Americans can hang out at all-inclusives or bar hop in old Havana, dancing to local Cuban music and smoking Cuban cigars at Ernest Hemingway haunts like La Floridita, you will see a massive wave of tourists flood the country,” she wrote.
This report includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald. com/insight.
By the numbers
The number of Americans* visiting Cuba has increased significantly since 2009, though there was a dip in 2013, the most recent year that statistics are available. Overall, the number of visitors has steadily increased.
Source: Cuba’s National Statistics Office
* The figures do not include Cuban-Americans traveling to visit family.
Visiting Cuba Today
Under rules released earlier this year, U.S.-born individuals who fall under one of 12 categories can visit Cuba without getting specific advance permission from the U.S. government. Groups comprised of people in those categories — such as professional and educational groups — can create their town people-to-people style trips without U.S. government permission.
Airline space and hotels are surprisingly easy to arrange using guidebooks — as those from Moon and Lonely Planet — and the internet. (And yes, some sites will take your credit card.) What isn’t so easy is finding space in hotels, so you’re best to secure that first, then book your air.
Here’s the process:
- Cuba Travel Network, cubatravelnetwork.com, books official hotels online and accepts credit cards. (All hotels are owned either fully or partly by the government.)
- Many casas particulares — B&B rooms in private homes — can be reserved online and paid once you arrive. One good, responsive source is casaincuba.com.
- Go to the website of a Cuba airline broker (you’ll find a list at http://cubatrips.org/charter-flights-to-cuba.html). (CheapAir.com. also is offering flights, but via Mexico.)
- Fill out a request. (You can’t just pick a flight online.)
- The broker will be back in touch with the OFAC authorization form. You will need to check the qualifying category, sign and return, before the airline can book your flights.
- About three weeks prior to flight time, the broker will supply tickets and a tourist card that allows entry into Cuba.
On the ground:
- Recent visitors advise grabbing a good guidebook and asking at your lodging for guides and taxis. Most recommend against renting a car and driving yourself.