by Daniel Levine / February 24, 2015New York—A few days after the publication of new regulations governing U.S. travel to Cuba, I logged on to the Cubana Airlines website and purchased tickets to Havana using my credit card.
While many tour operators to the island would still like prospective visitors from the U.S. to believe that travelers cannot just hop on a plane and go, that's simply not the case. They can, and they will. The floodgates for FIT travel have been thrown wide open.
Purely touristic travel such as stays at all-inclusive beach resorts remains prohibited. However, any American wishing to visit Cuba may now do so, simply by declaring oneself as fitting into one of 12 legal categories.
The broadest of these is Professional Research relating to the traveler's profession, professional background or area of expertise. If the reason for traveling to Cuba falls into this (or any of the other categories) an American is automatically authorized to visit the country legally, without having to apply for a license.
An opportunity for agents
Direct, scheduled flights may take a year or more to get underway while airline agreements are negotiated, but as a practical matter for individual travelers this hardly matters.
The fact is, many airlines are already offering charter flights to Havana's José Martí International Airport from Tampa and Miami for as low as $329 round-trip. And Sun Country Airlines just announced charter service from New York's JFK starting on March 17th. Others are set to follow.
Especially now, while Cuba-bound flights are not available for purchase directly from most airline websites or traditional OTAs, there is a unique opportunity for travel agents to fill in the knowledge gap and help clients make these arrangements.
While traveling in Cuba is not particularly difficult, it is not for novices. It’s for sophisticated travelers who value meaningful experiences over luxurious pampering. The biggest hurdle for Cuba-bound travelers is no longer the U.S. government; it’s finding a good place to sleep.
Upscale room shortage
Cuba has a shortage of high-end hotels and much of what does exist seems to be already booked, often by tour operators far in advance. This situation will become even more acute as the number of American visitors rises.
As an alternative, the country's newly-minted entrepreneurial classes are transforming their homes into apartment rentals and bed-and-breakfasts.
Walking around Havana I saw signs announcing these "casas paticulares" on almost every street. Some streets sport as many as ten of these logos – which look roughly like a blue roof against a white background – on a single block.
Prices seem to hover around the $25 to $50 a night range. Hotel rates, in comparison, can go to $300 or more. The challenge, of course, is finding and booking these before landing. Here is where opportunity exists for clever packagers to get involved as middlemen for FIT travel.
The Caribbean’s new competition
Restaurateurs and other tourism service providers I spoke with in Cuba are clearly excited by the vast sea change set to wash over the country's tourism landscape.
Conversely, at the last Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) conference I attended, country managers seemed universally threatened by the opening of Cuba to Americans—and the impact it will have on their own number of visitor arrivals.
When asked how many American tourists they foresee, more than one Cuban used the expression "as many as the stars." Clearly this optimism also suggests an opportunity for those U.S.-based tourism professionals who position themselves to take advantage of it.