2016-09-01 / Business News

Cuba travel

Trips come with limits

Fathom’s Adonia cruise ship rests in Miami in June before sailing to Cuba. 
PREFERRED TRAVEL OF NAPLES COURTESY PHOTOS Fathom’s Adonia cruise ship rests in Miami in June before sailing to Cuba. PREFERRED TRAVEL OF NAPLES COURTESY PHOTOS Although many see full-scale U.S. tourism in Cuba as an inevitability in the years to come, it is still prohibited by our government. But carefully planned visits for a dozen official reasons, including travel for general educational purposes, have opened the door to groups, individuals and even luxury cruise ships that now take Americans to visit the storied island nation.

Travel agents in South Florida have had mixed success booking trips there since diplomatic ties were re-established last year for the first time in more than five decades.

On the one hand, they say, there is a pent-up desire for many to see Cuba after being shut out for so long, to see what travelers perceive as a more authentic version of the country before American tourism and business — if and when it’s allowed — could transform the landscape with Cancún-style beach resorts and Starbucks.

Kids play soccer at a square in Havana last December. Kids play soccer at a square in Havana last December. Connie Moody, a senior travel consultant with Preferred Travel of Naples, went with a group of 24 people for a long weekend in January organized by the luxury and adventure travel company Abercrombie & Kent. She has also traveled to Cuba on the Fathom Cruise Line’s Adonia, which is owned by Carnival. Both trips have price tags upwards of $4,000.

“My clients who are going and have gone with me are very experienced travelers,” she said. “They’ve had a pent-up desire to go to Havana and they’re willing to accept some of the regulations to have that experience before it gets too touristy. We’re all selling Cuba in my office.”

On the other hand, U.S. travelers are forced to stick to a set schedule of activities. The cost of trips is relatively high, and there are other inconveniences in a country with crumbling infrastructure. Internet service is spotty, and U.S. credit and debit cards don’t yet work in Cuba — it’s cash only.

MOODY MOODY Tour operators are required to keep records showing where they went, and Americans accustomed to being able to go where they please or to being ensconced in lush resorts might be disappointed. Visitors at times forgo niceties like air conditioning or bottled water. The country’s lack of polish also has its charms, such as the 1950s cars for which the island is known.

“It’s not going to be like going to Cancún,” said David Dowrick, owner of The Travel Gallery in Tequesta. “But I think people come back and they enjoy it as long as you go with the right frame of mind, you’re not going to be able to just go off and lay on the beach and have a drink. That’s not what it’s about, not now at least, because tourism hasn’t been approved.”

DOWRICK DOWRICK He also pointed out in an email, “These restrictions do not apply to Canadians or Europeans. About 1 million Canadians visited Cuba last year, representing about 40 percent of all visitors.”

Among the 12 categories of travel allowed for U.S. citizens are general activities for cultural and educational purposes usually referred to as “people-to-people” travel. According to the U.S. Embassy in Havana that means maintaining “a fulltime schedule of educational exchange activities … that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba.”

Lynnette Lydic, a Fort Myers-based travel agent with Concierge Cruises, studied up on Cuba to sell trips on Fathom’s Adonia after diplomacy thawed, but so far few clients have been interested.

LYDIC LYDIC “I really thought that it was going to pick up but there’s still so many restrictions on it,” she said. “A lot of people think it’s a tourist thing and you can go and have a drink on the beach, and you can’t, you have to stay with your group. The good thing about the travel, though, is the group is taking you to places that you want to see anyway.”

Pamela White, a Port Charlotte-based agent with Time 2 Travel Agency, said clients who have inquired about a trip to Cuba decided not to go.

“Most of what I have seen personally is people are still waiting for those restrictions to let up. I have not had anyone who wants to go yet. They want to do their own thing, be able to hang out on the beach.”

Group tours

Travel Gallery owner Mr. Dowrick recommended going on a visit through an established tour operator instead of trying to plan your own “people-to-people” trip.

Christmas lights hang from an apartment above a typical street in Havana last December. 
PREFERRED TRAVEL OF NAPLES COURTESY PHOTOS Christmas lights hang from an apartment above a typical street in Havana last December. PREFERRED TRAVEL OF NAPLES COURTESY PHOTOS “A tour operator will take care of all the government paperwork for you, and solo travelers have reported spending a lot of time trying to find transportation, bottled water and facilities up to the standards we enjoy here in the states,” he wrote in an email. “Tour operators have done the homework for you. They select the best hotels, restaurants and modes of transportation so travelers can enjoy the cultural exchange.”

Another option that he calls “Cuba-lite” is to take Fathom’s Adonia cruise ship on a seven-day tour.

Preferred Travel consultant Ms. Moody has experienced Cuba both on a group visit last January organized by a luxury travel company, and on the cruise.

WHITE WHITE The group tour left Southwest Florida on a Wednesday night and flew out of Miami on Thursday morning for a long weekend on the island, returning on Sunday afternoon.

“The accommodations, the food, the experience the group and I had in January, everybody said it far exceeded expectations,” Ms. Moody said.

Among the authorized events on their schedule, they went to a farmers market, met artists, musicians and a professor of sociology from the University of Havana. They enjoyed meals at family-run restaurants and stayed at the historic Art Deco Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

The cruise ship, which can hold 704 passengers, sailed from Miami and visited Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

“It’s nice to have your ship be your floating hotel to come home to,” she said.

Family visit

Those who go to Cuba to visit family have the chance to see a country that other U.S. citizens can’t. Kristina Gear visited the island where her parents were born for the first time last December, meeting cousins, nieces and nephews. On Christmas Eve they roasted a pig, drank Havana Club rum and, of course, played dominoes.

GEAR GEAR “We kind of wanted to go before things changed too much because I had never been and I wanted to see how it really was before the Americans got in,” said Ms. Gear, who is herself an American, born in Naples. She works for Preferred Travel as assistant to the president.

Ms. Gear visited family both in Cotorro, outside Havana, and then in a town called Camajuaní. The road trip to Camajuaní was one example of why Cuba’s infrastructure isn’t yet ready for American tourism.

“I think the infrastructure will be the biggest obstacle, because it’s very rough in a lot of areas,” she said, including power outages, and lack of access to basics such as clothes, toiletries and drinking water. “And if people go to a country, they’re going to want to wander throughout and driving was awful. The potholes are like sinkholes and you can’t go very fast because you don’t know when the next one’s going to come.”

She believes that potential American tourism and other investment in Cuba, while having some drawbacks, will raise the quality of life for her family and others there.

“Honestly, I think it would be really good for the people because they deserve to have what the rest of the world has,” she said.

That appears to be happening little by little. For instance, major airlines were approved by the Transportation Department to start flights to Havana late this summer and in the fall from 10 U.S. cities, including Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa. Approved airlines include Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United.

“Today we take another important step toward delivering on President Obama’s promise to re-engage Cuba,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release in July.

Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) is not among the airports with major carriers offering flights to Cuba — at least initially.

“We applied and we wrote a letter and we didn’t get it, but they’re the bigger markets so we really weren’t surprised by it,” said Carol Obermeier, director of air service development at RSW. “We’re going to be watching very closely how those scheduled carriers perform.”

She added, “That’s a lot of capacity going into Havana (José Martí International Airport) and it’s a very small airport.” ¦

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