By Brian Jewell
Call it a hot destination — the popularity of newly legal tours to Cuba has far exceeded industry expectations.
Last year, the Obama administration loosened restrictions on some American travel to Cuba, allowing tour operators to apply for licenses to take Americans on specially designated “people to people” tours. A limited number of tour operators applied for and were granted licenses. Those tour operators now report that demand for the Cuba trips has been even stronger than expected.
“It’s blowing our expectations away,” said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba. “With all of the pent-up demand for Cuba, it’s not a total surprise. Six months ago, we had 150 departures, and we just added 70 more.”
Friendly Plant Travel, a tour operator based in Jenkintown, Pa., received a license to take tours to Cuba in September and operated its first tour there in January. Owner Peggy Goldman said many of her existing customers were eagerly awaiting an opportunity to go.
“We had a lot of travelers that have been traveling with us over the years who were incredibly excited about the opportunity,” she said. “So far for 2012, we’ve got about 1,500 people booked. We’re selling out our departures and adding as many departures as we can.”
Premier World Tours, an operator based in Redondo Beach, Calif., began taking groups to Cuba last year. Vice president of sales Stephen Birkett said the popularity of tours to Cuba has surpassed that of any other tour the company offers.
“The demand is tremendous — it’s like no tour that I’ve ever seen in my 22 years in the group travel business,” he said. “It’s because Americans haven’t been able to travel there for 50 to 60 years.
“We basically filled 50 full buses on this tour within four weeks of putting the program out there. This year, we’ll double that, having 100 full buses in Cuba without question.”
The government also recently awarded a license to Collette Vacations, which is taking its first passengers to Cuba this month. Tony Etienne, Collette’s vice president of business development, said that preformed groups such as churches and banks clubs were the first to book trips.
“Existing travelers have told us for years that Cuba is one of their dream destinations, but we just couldn’t take them there,” he said. “When this originally came about in early June of 2011, our banks, churches and nonprofit groups came and said, ‘When you have it, we want to do it.’
“So the fastest way to market it was with the preformed groups, which had the experience and ability to offer an international destination and one that has some quirks.”
Restrictions put in place by the Office of Foreign Asset Control (the Treasury Department agency that issues Cuba travel licenses) make people-to-people tours different than some traditional vacations. Tours operated under a people-to-people license must have a full-time itinerary of cultural and educational interactions with Cuban people.
As a result of the special rules, Cuba tour itineraries include a number of interesting opportunities. Many tours will visit a Cuban school or have an in-home meal with a local family.
Friendly Planet Travel tours include a visit to a free pharmacy in Havana run by a Jewish community. Collette programs feature a conversation with fishermen in a coastal fishing village, and Premier World Discovery’s groups visit a pottery studio to visit with a family of artisans.