General Tours’ Partnership Promises to Boost Travel to Cuba
by Robin Amster

Travel agents have a new opportunity to sell Cuba with the U.S. government’s approval of a partnership between Insight Cuba and General Tours for legal people-to-people tours.

The two companies had partnered on Cuba travel in 2003, but in 2004 the Bush administration ended the people-to-people program. The program had enabled groups to travel legally to the island nation despite the U.S.’s 50-year-old trade embargo.

Following President Obama’s reversal  last year of several Bush-era travel restrictions, including his restoration of the people-to-people program, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has given the renewed partnership the go-ahead. OFAC is charged with issuing licenses that must be renewed annually for the Cuba travel program.

Good time to go
Insight Cuba’s license renewal came through in September. The company is a nonprofit specializing solely in people-to-people tours to Cuba.

“Agents should communicate to their clients that there’s an absolutely wonderful legal way to travel to Cuba now,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba. “When most people hear about travel to Cuba it kind of washes over them because they could never go.

“Our experience is that once they recognize this is a possibility, they’re all over it,” Popper said. “There’s tremendous pent-up demand.”

General Tours’ president Bob Drumm said this is a good time to visit Cuba. “It is very like the perestroika period in Russia. Social change is taking root; it’s a really stimulating time.”

General Tours and Insight Cuba are offering four tours to Cuba for 2013. They include a seven-night Classic Cuba; seven-night Scenic Cuba; eight-night Cuban Music & Art, and 11-night Undiscovered Cuba program.

$100 booking bonus
General Tours sent agents an email blast about the tours. It is also offering agents a $100 bonus for group bookings of eight or more.

Drumm explained that agents can contact General Tours for details on the Insight programs including itineraries, prices and departure dates. The company then transfers the agent to Insight, which makes the bookings and collects the funds.

The OFAC authorizes General Tours to pay agents a “referral fee” once the Cuba booking is finalized, Drumm said. General Tours has chosen to make the referral fee “commensurate” with the company’s commission structure, which pays agents “well in excess of 10%,” Drumm said.

Other companies that have received OFAC licenses for people-to-people programs include YMT Vacations, Smithsonian Journeys, Collette Vacations, International Expeditions and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.

6,000 Americans to Cuba
According to Popper, Insight Cuba is uniquely well-placed to offer Cuba tours. He said the company has developed local Cuban suppliers and sent more than 6,000 Americans to Cuba since it was founded in 2000.

“Traveling to Cuba is unlike traveling to any other destination,” Popper said. “Because of the political climate and economic conditions, things often change. Flexibility is important for everyone that works there. For a lot of companies, it’s a learning curve.”

At the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, founder and executive director John McAuliff said the Insight/General Tours partnership “opens up travel, because it means agents will be dealing with a professional travel company that has its own network.”

An OFAC licensee, the fund is a nonprofit organization whose goal is reconciliation with and development of Cuba, as well as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. It operates periodic trips to Cuba for institutions and individuals seeking to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.

For agents, a different formula
Popper of Insight Cuba commented that the partnership with General Tours raised awareness about his organization. “No question it’s a good thing, especially with a destination where people are a little nervous and unfamiliar. This will make Cuba more accessible to many more Americans.

“But agents interested in selling Cuba will have to be willing to deal with this different formula, in terms of getting a referral fee, not a commission, and not handling anyone’s money,” he added.

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