Interest in Travel to Cuba Is Up Again, Tour Operators Say

by Jessica Montevago
Interest in Travel to Cuba Is Up Again, Tour Operators Say

Study respondents said they expect to see an increase in bookings this year from cruises, study abroad trips, and people-to-people group travel. Photo: Shutterstock

Tour operators expect U.S. travel bookings to Cuba to increase in 2019, a new survey shows, despite government-issued policy changes that impacted American travel to the island last year.

The survey, which was conducted in late 2018 by the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), a nonprofit research organization, was released this week. It reflects input from 23 U.S. tour operators and other service providers to Cuba.

Respondents said they expect to see an increase in bookings from cruises, study abroad trips, and people-to-people group travel.

Of the respondents involved in U.S. people-to-people travel to Cuba (now labeled as “Support for the Cuban People”), more than half (55 percent) expect an increase. “People-to-people trips to Cuba offer fully immersive and authentic educational experiences,” said Martha Honey, executive director of the Center of Responsible Travel.

More than 71 percent of the respondents who book cruises to Cuba said they expected those bookings to be up in 2019. Boosted with new suppliers entering the market, such as Seabourn and Virgin Voyages heading to Cuba in 2019 and 2020 with their ultra-luxury and adults-only cruise lines, it’s likely to remain strong.

In 2019, Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism aims to exceed five million international visitors, which would represent its twelfth year of growth. There is a wide range of cultural events taking place throughout the year, from the Havana Art Biennial beginning in April to Carnival in Santiago this July, culminating in the 500th Anniversary of Havana in November.

Overcoming the challenges of 2018
Public misperceptions surrounding the Trump administration’s policy changes, as well as the State Department’s change of its Cuba travel advisory rating, has impacted U.S. stayover travel.

During the first half of 2018, bookings to Cuba fell off drastically. Nearly 81 percent of the respondents to the survey reported decreases of U.S. travelers visiting Cuba during the first half of 2018; 62 percent reported decreases of 20 percent or more.

But tourism began to recover in the latter half of the year. Cuba still finished the year strong with a record 4.75 million international visitors, thanks largely to cruise ship arrivals, which grew by 48 percent in 2018.

The Trump administration’s policies, beginning in mid-2017 and resulting in confusion among Americans, were cited by tour operators as key reasons why U.S. stayover travel dipped in 2018, with 81 percent of respondents selecting the belief that new U.S. policies make travel to Cuba illegal for U.S. citizens. But in fact, Americans may still travel to Cuba under 12 categories of travel approved by the U.S. government, although they must make sure they follow the regulations.

Other than requiring Americans making people-to-people trips to have contact with the Cuban people and to travel in groups rather than individually, “the legal aspect of travel to Cuba is virtually unchanged,” said Robert Muse, a Washington-based lawyer specializing in U.S.-Cuba matters, during a conference call organized by CREST.

The other top reason cited in the survey for the decline in U.S. travel to Cuba in the first half of 2018 was the Level 3 travel advisory (reconsider travel) issued by the U.S. State Department, in the wake of mysterious health incidents involving U.S. diplomats, primarily at their Havana homes. In August, the State Department downgraded that to a Level 2 rating (exercise increased caution).

“Visitors to Cuba, time and time again, leave this island yearning to come back,” said Rita McNiff, founder of Like a Cuban. “Cuba is a very special place. The country is safe, the people are warm and inviting, and greet visitors with open arms and hearts. I can firmly stand behind the safety of Cuba, having made the country my home for the past three years.”

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