Changes to U.S.-Cuba Relations: 5 Tour Operators React

by  Christine Dayao | Dec 22, 2014
Havana, Cuba
Havana, Cuba / MaboHH/iStock

President Obama’s announcement earlier this month that the U.S. and Cuba are making efforts to normalize their relationship after decades of sanctions and travel limitations wasn't exactly a shock. For several years, U.S. travelers have been allowed to visit Cuba with "people-to-people" cultural exchange programs that are approved by the government and presented through specially licensed tour providers. These have been the only legal way that Americans could explore the mostly off-limits island. With improved relations, Americans could soon see an easier process to travel to Cuba in the future.

We were interested to know, however, how tour operators will be handling this change in policy, and that their plans are for the future. Here are their responses.

The New Rochelle, New York-based operator focuses exclusively on Cuba tours, and offers nine of them, ranging from four to 12 nights, taking travelers to Havana and exploring other destinations like Cienfuegos and Trinidad. “For those already booked on one of our tours for December and in 2015, they are going to visit Cuba during an extraordinarily historic time. There will be no effect to our existing tours as a result of the announcement. Until the U.S. Embargo against Cuba and the ensuing travel restrictions are lifted, people-to-people trips will continue to be an excellent option for people to see and discover Cuba,” said Tom Popper, the organization’s president. Because travel to the country will continue to prohibit travel for tourism purposes, Popper anticipates that the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) will continue to require the current people-to-people exchanges in the future, such as educational or religious-themed activities.

smarTours offers one itinerary to the island, the Rediscover Cuba tour, during which you’ll ride vintage American automobiles around Havana. The company’s Co-CEO Greg Geronemus told us that while their plans have not changed, smarTours will continue to “prioritize people-to-people experiences because they're extremely fulfilling” -- even after President Obama and OFAC issue new regulations.

Friendly Planet
There are several Cuba trips to book through Friendly Planet; highlights include meeting artists in Old Havana, taking a trip to a primary school, and visiting Varadero. “At the moment, there is no impact on our current tours, because new rules have not yet been finalized,” said the website’s President, Peggy M. Goldman. “However, we have had an unprecedented volume of visits to our Cuba pages on our website, calls to our reservations team, and of course, bookings,” she added.

Gate 1 Travel
When you take a tour of Cuba with this operator, you’ll meet Cuban musicians, learn about restoration projects in Old Havana, and learn about Havana’s urban farming movement. “Travelers have a heightened interest now so that they can visit the country as it is today, and before any potential policy changes inevitably change the experience. As for the future, we will only be able to consider changes to our program once official policies affecting travel have been approved,” Marty Seslow, Gate 1 Travel’s Vice President of Marketing, told us. As a result of the announcement, Seslow said that “inquiries and bookings for our small group Cuba educational exchange itinerary have been coming in at unprecedented levels.”

YMT Vacations
YMT Vacations currently offers an eight-day trip, during which participants visit Ernest Hemingway’s farm, do some cigar rolling, and visit community projects.  “There won’t be a lot of changes for travelers booked on one of our people-to-people Cuba trips in 2015. At some point, our guests will be able to use their credit cards in Cuba to bring back more goods should they care to purchase them. When those changes become effective we will make sure that guests know so that they can plan appropriately,” said Tom Garrett, YMT Vacations’ Vice President of Marketing. He said that the tour provider is hopeful that the policy changes would allow them to add new elements to their itineraries, though it is still unknown what they will constitute.

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