Due to the popularity of the regular tour program, Insight Cuba is creating some new itineraries for 2012 centered around special events around the country. Groups can take music-themed trips during the Havana Jazz Festival or focus on the arts during the Havana Biennial, a large arts celebration that takes place around the capital city.
The company is also working to bring a group of American runners to participate alongside Cuban athletes in the Havana Marathon.
Although the tours are proving popular, building travel programs in Cuba poses a number of challenges for tour operators. Since federal regulations prohibit tour operators from offering beach vacations in Cuba, the companies don’t use the high-end seaside resorts that cater to Canadian and European visitors.
They turn instead to locations inside the cities they’re visiting, where the number of hotels that meet American travel standards are limited.
“Getting hotel space in Cuba is really hard right now, especially during the seasons that aren’t as hot,” Goldman said.
The hotel space limitation is most pronounced in Trinidad, a small 500-year-old colonial city designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage Site. Several tour operators’ initial tour programs included overnights in Trinidad. But because they cannot get more hotel space there, companies looking to expand their Cuba offerings have had to create secondary tours that don’t go to Trinidad, staying in Havana for the duration of the tour instead.
Tour operators working in Cuba must also keep a constant eye on U.S. government regulations. Each of the licenses granted by the Office of Foreign Asset Control expires after a year, meaning that tour operators must resubmit applications to be licensed for 2013.
“We’re going through the renewal application process right now,” Popper said. “It’s not really up in the air as long as we comply with all of the rules. We have a compliance committee, so we’re always double-checking everything that we do. And we’re in constant contact with the Treasury Department.”
Election year politics may also have an impact on tourism to Cuba. Although the Obama administration has loosened the restrictions, there are some groups — especially Cuban expatriates living in south Florida — who oppose the people-to-people provision, saying that it undermines the trade embargo and supports the country’s communist regime.
If the makeup of the U.S. government changes significantly during this year’s elections, new officials may choose to close the door on Cuban tours once again. Groups interested in visiting Cuba would be well advised to take advantage of today’s opportunities.
“Cuba seems to bring a lot of people to the forefront,” Etienne said. “There aren’t many things that come along in the travel industry that create the buzz that this has.”