Cultural Cuba’s David Lee Talks About the Magic of Selling Cuba

by Jessica Montevago
Cultural Cuba’s David Lee Talks About the Magic of Selling Cuba

Salsa street dances in one of the central squares in Havana, where both the locals and the tourists can take part. Photo: Lesinka372/

According to data from the the Bureau of Statistics, Cuba had already shown a 20% drop in arrivals in June, after Washington that same month banned cruises to Cuba and made it harder for U.S. citizens to get an exemption from the ban on travel there.

David Lee, founder of Cultural Cuba, a destination management company specializing in private tours to Cuba, said his business has seen the opposite. “Our numbers are up so much, so it could be a lot of factors. The message is, it’s not that interest in Cuba is down – it is much more about ‘Can I go?’ and ‘How can I go?’”

Legal travel to Cuba is very much possible. Cultural Cuba continues to legally operate “business as usual,” despite the U.S. Treasury Department’s new restrictions imposed on cruises and people-to-people travel to the Caribbean island.

“I’m trying to wipe out the notion that it’s ‘restricted,’” Lee told Travel Market Report. Here’s some advice he gave to travel advisors interested in selling the destination.

Travel Market Report: What would you tell travel advisors who want to sell Cuba?
David Lee: There’s still a lot of confusion among travel advisors. In some cases, some agencies have told their advisors not to sell Cuba. They’re nervous and not sure what they can count on, and a lot of it is fear-based.

When there is confusion, is when travel advisors need to step up. It’s where they show their value. At the end of the day, most of the advisors I talked to are looking for answers and advice. What’s true for American clients? How should they be selling Cuba?

The majority haven’t dropped Cuba, but they are seeking answers. It’s tough because, if you’re a travel advisor, you might be an expert in a certain niche, but it’s hard to keep up with constant legal changes – and that is where we come in. Our whole message to agents is to work with companies like ours that are true DMCs. You want to work with someone who has a team on the ground. There is a huge difference between that and reselling.

TMR: What advice would you give them?
DL: The key with Cuba, this is a consultative sell. This is something that requires a phone call, a little more explanation, that it is open and legal, and how you can travel there. I never use the word ‘restrictive.’ The idea is you’re meeting with people. The big difference is to use us, have us do a three-way conference call with your client. We’ll be a united front with the travel advisor. Use us to explain directly any questions. Don’t hesitate. We don’t mind, get us on the phone with them.

Repeat business is so high with word of mouth once an advisor sells it, it keeps going. It’s the darling of Instagram, and it has such a broad appeal, from weddings, multigen, and more. it has so much to offer. For most places, it’s not a far flight, and 85% of the trips we plan are four nights. It leaves you wanting more, but especially when you’re private custom, it’ll leave you wanting to come back again in the future.

TMR: Why is the situation so confusing to travelers and even advisors?
DL: The U.S. government could have taken away all travel to Cuba, but out of 12 categories, there are 11 still remaining. There’s so much polarization happening politically and people feel like everything is a pawn. It is very muddled and very unclear. The message should have been all the positive reasons we’re doing things – such as port fees and taxes that line the pockets of the government – but it’s very gray. If you go on the OFAC, the Cuba section is so much legalese. What does this mean to me as a traveler?

The one thing you want to do is feel like you’re never breaking the law. You might want to learn and experience a new culture, but at the end of the day, if it feels complicated, you’re probably going to look elsewhere. This is where things could have been handled better. I’ve talked to people in the government and in the Treasury Department, and they are not trying to stop travelers.

TMR: Why is it so important that Americans still travel to Cuba?
DL: The message from our perspective – why it is so important to go – is if Americans stop going, they are the driving force monetarily and in numbers. If you talk about the people themselves, Americans are for supporting the Cuban people themselves, not the regime.

There’s something so palatable about what is going on in Cuba, it changes the traveler when they go there. It really does change them. The only way to really understand what is going on there is to visit. This is not a fad – most people go back, it’s not a checklist destination. Well over 50% of clients repeat, whether they come again on their own or with family. It’s only 90 miles off the coast of the Florida Keys, but you are completely transported. Until you go, you don’t realize the magnitude. It’s hard to imagine because it just can’t be compared. Emphasis on the arts – there’s an extraordinary amount of talent.

Isolation is never the answer. The best way for this to continue is for Americans to continue to go there. Go for support of the Cuban people. 

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