Focus On Cuba: A Year Later Travel Agents Still Struggle

by Richard D’Ambrosio


A year after the embargo on travel to Cuba was lifted, there is a growing interest in seeing the island. But the booking logistics are often difficult to navigate for travel agents trying to gain a foothold in this market. At the New York Times Travel Show, Jan. 27, a panel of experts offered up some advice.

“There is no reason not to go right now,” said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development at the Cuba/US People to People Partnership. Three million tourists visited Cuba in 2016.

“There are really good fares out there,” said Bob Guild, consultant at Marazul Charters, Inc., Miami and North Bergen, NJ, and since commercial carriers are trying to encourage travel on their new routes, fares should stay attractive for the near term. And depending on the season, hotel rates can be attractive too. Many economy hotels offer good rates, and state tour agencies can also arrange home stays for smaller groups of a dozen or so travelers or less, for as little as $30-$60/night.

But for many agents, the easiest path is to book with one of the three tour companies licensed by the Cuban government to wholesale through U.S.-based agents and tour operators: Havana Tur, Amistur and San Cristobal.

Accessing supply can be difficult
Agents looking to provide a more curated individual experience will find obstacles, principal among them being booking hotel rooms and rental cars during peak periods, and enabling clients to pay for their trip.

Twenty hands went up when Steve Marshall, CEO of Cuba Ventures Corp. in Vancouver, asked the audience: “How many of you have tried to send a traveler to Cuba?” But only one of them reported having a favorable experience.

Cuba Ventures Corp. and a previous company Marshall owned provide a web presence for Cuban cities and provinces. He reports “a massive increase in U.S. residents visiting our websites” since travel was opened last year, and “thousands of requests” for hotels and rental cars.

Steve Powers, of Hidden Treasure Tours on Long Island, NY, said “the demand for accommodations is unbelievable right now. I’ll be showing someone a property tonight, and by tomorrow it’s gone.”

You still have to pay to stay
Once a property is chosen, the issue becomes paying for it. Americans are required to use a third party to pay in advance for hotels that are not American-operated.

Many Cuban pro-democracy groups in the United have been lobbying against banks extending credit transactions because the Cuban military owns much of the lodging infrastructure on the island. This has made many American financial institutions nervous about providing new payment vehicles.

Some Cuban hotels allow room reservations online to be held with a credit card, but the client will still have to pay, likely with cash, upon arrival.

“Payment remains the most difficult part of travel to Cuba,” McAuliff said. “You can use a Stonegate credit card (a MasterCard credit card issued by the Pompano Beach, FL, bank) in Cuba. Some agents have created their own account to facilitate payments that way. It’s a very awkward system. Payments are still a problem.”

Guild said he uses Stonegate to transfer money, but still is often “contacted by agents to act as a bank to transfer money.” His firm is reluctant to do so because Marazul then becomes legally responsible for that group. “Right now, it is still next to impossible to transfer money from a U.S. bank to a Cuban bank.”

Danielle Horry, owner of Travel Chicks Rock in New York, has had success booking individual trips based on her local contacts, built up over 10 years. “There are some challenges, especially when you’re small. I’ve literally had to carry stacks of cash on trips sometimes,” she said, noting that she tried to use PayPal recently, “but the payment didn’t go through.” VaCuba, another service, imposes an 8% surcharge, and “when you are sending a family of 10, that surcharge really adds up.”

And of course the quality of accommodations and other tourist services often remains below what many Americans expect, said Steve Dumaine, president and CEO of CheapCaribbean.com. “It will be four to five years before the infrastructure catches up with other destinations in the Caribbean priced at these rates.”

Horry stays in family homes, not hotels, when she visits Cuba. And she finds that spending a little extra time on planning a trip to the island pays off. “The objective for me is to be creative. Most people take the typical three-city tour, but your clients will recommend you if you go the extra mile for them. For every client I send to Cuba, I get at least one referral. I have one client who wants to stay for a month.”

Enrique Nunez, a Havana musician who offers eight-hour Hemingway-themed tours, is an example of the kinds of resources travel agents need to flesh out, experts on the panel said.  Tooting around Havana in his Russian Lada automobile, he has just one problem. He can only take four clients at a time, he said, to laughs from the audience.

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