Cuba’s Doors are Open, Opportunities Await Tour Operators

23 October 2018

While international travel is often exciting, perhaps stressful, and hopefully eye-opening, it can also be confusing and challenging. The deluge of world news notifications on our devices, and advisories from the U.S. State Department can lead to unnecessary trip cancellations and postponements.

A local naturalist guide talks about the local flora in Central Cuba. © Joslin Fritz

Such is the case with travel to Cuba for Americans, where regulations seem to change seasonally. There was a dramatic increase in travel to Cuba due to the change in U.S. policy from former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2014. Not only did Americans want to travel to Cuba “before it changed,” but Europeans and Canadians wanted to travel to Cuba before the Americans did. In 2017, 4.7 million tourists visited Cuba — a whopping 56 percent increase in visitors compared to just under 3 million tourists in 2014.

While tourism continues to increase in Cuba in 2018, much of this increase is due to cruise ship visitors and not individual and group travelers. Tour operators and individual travelers should not be dissuaded from Cuba travel, however, and there is a great opportunity to support local small businesses directly filtering into the local economy.

Allianz Insurance recently reported in Travel Daily News that 55 percent of Americans surveyed stated they don't understand the current travel restrictions on Cuba. As such, travelers are less likely to book travel to the island. As a tour operator focused solely on Cuba, I can see the effect this confusion has had on the country and its people. I hope to clarify U.S. President Donald Trump administration’s changes in policy that took place in November 2017, specifically as they relate to American citizens and U.S.-based tour operators. I also want to highlight the improvement of services and suppliers now available to travelers that were not present in the past.

Travel to Cuba is Still Legal for Americans

Obama announced a warming of relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014, eliminating the need for specific licenses for travel companies offering educational tours to Cuba. While the Trump administration’s stance on Cuba has been noticeably cooler than the Obama administration, little has actually changed in terms of policy. In November 2017, the Trump administration announced certain changes, most notably:

  • Travel under Educational Activities (People to People Travel) is still allowed, though individual travelers can no longer self-certify in this category. Travelers on People to People programs need to be accompanied by a person of U.S. jurisdiction from the tour company that certifies the educational activity requirements are being met and quality cultural interaction is taking place. These educational trips are wide ranging and can include cultural, art, dance, and music activities.
  • Other types of categorized travel are still legal, such as Professional Meetings and Research, Religious Activities, Humanitarian Projects, and Family Visits, to name a few.

Individual American Travel to Cuba is Still Allowed

While individual travel under Educational Activities (People to People) was removed in November 2017, individual travel to Cuba as an American is still allowed. The majority of individual travelers now label their trip under the Support for the Cuban People category of permissible travel. While travel to Cuba for touristic purposes remains illegal, in this category of travel individuals need to maintain a full-time schedule of educational activities resulting in meaningful interactions with local people.

Travelers chat with a local farmer during a brief stop during a drive. © Joslin Fritz

There is no need for individuals to travel to Cuba via Mexico. Legal travel on commercial flights from airlines such as American, United, JetBlue, Southwest, and Delta departing from the U.S. is readily available. In November 2018, JetBlue will offer direct flights from Boston to Havana, and direct flights still remain available from common gateway cities such as Charlotte, Miami, New York, Houston, and Atlanta.

Individual travelers may experience challenging transportation and activity logistics on the ground in Cuba especially if they don’t speak Spanish. That said, there are an increasing number of day tours and services offered via Airbnb experiences and TripAdvisor-listed travel companies. Also, these travelers must stay in private bed-and-breakfast accommodations and eat in privately owned restaurants. They should retain records of their trip for five years once they return to the United States.

The Opportunity for Tour Operators in Cuba is Greater Than Ever

With a little research and strong partners on the ground, tour operators can create sales by covering the legal requirements for individuals and ease confusion. Tour companies don’t need special licenses to operate People to People tours, though they do need to understand the legalities of the requirements and maintain detailed records of trips. People can read more of the specifics of these requirements in the FAQs of the Office of Foreign Assets Control on Cuba. This ability to self-certify, or offer People to People tours, could greatly increase the number of operators offering tours to Cuba.

Travel to Cuba Goes Beyond Classic Cars, Cigars, and Music

Cuba has long been promoted as a beach-and-sun destination, especially to European markets, but American travelers are increasingly more interested in the arts, music, and culture of this Caribbean destination. The growth in the tourism market during the past five years has led to an increase in capable Cuban individuals who understand the level of service needed in tourism who understand the high level of service needed to satiate international expectations. Cubans are a remarkably educated people, with a literacy rate and comparable life expectancy than those of the US. What they lack is economic means, which can be provided via unique, fun, and educational experiences achieved through tourism. Tour operators and travel experts on the ground working with local vendors can assist greatly in creating new markets and experiences for travelers.

Recent developments in the private sector provide an opportunity for cultural interactions that were not possible in the past. Private dinners with former diplomats, music performances in the homes of well-known artists, and walking tours with architects and economists are just a few of the activities that fulfill the educational requirements of legal travel. Additionally, boutique-like properties provide excellent service and comfort that was not previously available.

Cuba is ready to welcome American travelers. © Joslin Fritz

There is a rise in Cuban entrepreneurship, and these self-starters face certain challenges specific to Cuba; a lack of steady supply chain of products ranging from bottled water, soda, and even eggs can lead to some creative problem solving. Lack of access to capital is challenging when growing a small business. But this unique struggle makes for a great learning opportunity: Travelers enjoy learning about these challenges and talking one-on-one with these innovative individuals.

Cuba remains one of the safest destinations in the world. In August 2018, the U.S. State Department lowered the travel advisory on Cuba from level 3 to level 2, now matching travel advisories to Italy, France, and Spain. While Cuba isn’t the only country struggling with U.S. foreign policy changes, many B&Bs, restaurants, and bars are now sitting empty due to confusion and misinformation. But don’t be fooled by this uncertainty; the time to visit Cuba — and begin offering it to potential clients — is now.

For more information on travel rules and regulations, you can check out the U.S. State Department page on Cuba as well as the Office for Foreign Assets Control website.