Update: Weighing a Last-Minute Trip to Cuba
During a historic week in which major airlines made their first commercial flights to Havana, and just days after the death of Fidel Castro, President-elect Donald J. Trump threatened again to end the détente with Cuba, casting into doubt the future of easy travel to the country.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Nov. 28.
If Mr. Trump were to change travel rules regarding Cuba, many Americans will likely be disappointed: Travel agents and tour companies say that they are continuing to see healthy interest in Cuba. Sojern, a travel technology company that works with more than 800 travel brands and independent hotels, said that Cuba was in the top five most searched and booked destinations on Cyber Monday. And Cuba was the fastest-growing destination for American travelers in 2016 — up 153 percent from 2015 — according to Squaremouth, which compares travel insurance policies from major United States providers. Additionally, “the number of U.S. travelers buying travel insurance for trips to Cuba more than doubled this year,” said Rachael Taft, a spokeswoman for Squaremouth, yet another indication that people are planning trips there.
Even so, there doesn’t appear to be a rush to visit Cuba in the weeks before Mr. Trump takes office. Low commercial airfares suggest that supply is greater than demand, and there are still spots on scheduled tours.
Rather, it seems that travelers who are eager enough to have already booked trips aren’t backing out, while those who planned to hold off until Cuba has more hotels and services are still waiting.
“We have not had any clients say they wouldn’t go or that they were concerned based on recent comments by our President-elect,” said Honey Moss, a travel consultant in Miami with Protravel International, one of the largest traditional travel agencies in North America. But “several clients have asked what would happen if they planned a trip and then the borders were closed again,” she said. “We have been advised by the partners we work with in Cuba that all deposits and payments would be refunded.”
Sandie Wiesenthal, a luxury travel consultant with Protravel International in Beverly Hills, Calif., who visited Cuba in October, said that her clients haven’t expressed concerns about the new administration’s viewpoint on Cuba. Instead, they’re sticking to their own views. “The excitement is still there,” she said. “Clients who want to visit before it changes still feel the same way, and the people who wanted to wait until there was more of a structure for tourism continue to have the same thoughts.”
Since the election, Overseas Adventure Travel, a tour company that offers Cuba land tours through its Grand Circle Foundation — such as Cuba Revealed: Cultural Pathways from Camaguey to Havana and Cuba: A Bridge Between Cultures — said that it has seen a slight drop in sales, but not by much. “Given that our travelers are older and grew up during the Castro era, they’re extremely curious about Cuba and hopeful to experience it,” said Priscilla L. O’Reilly, a spokeswoman for the company.
In other words, some travelers are taking a wait-and-see approach, as Gabe Saglie, a senior editor with the travel deals site, Travelzoo, put it. Many were doing that even before the election, research by Travel Leaders Group shows, saying they would “go immediately” to Cuba if all government restrictions were lifted (there are currently only a dozen categories of authorized travel outlined by the Treasury Department; travelers can’t just go to Cuba for a beach vacation). “On the other hand,” Mr. Saglie said of Mr. Trump’s threats, “even a slim potential for changes is enough to have another batch of intrigued travelers making the decision to go sooner rather than later.” One of the reasons Travelzoo named Cuba to its 2016 list of places expected to have bargains in the new year was because of the uncertainty beyond this year.
Indeed, airfares to Cuba are low, which industry experts say suggests that demand for commercial flights has not caught up with supply. Delta, JetBlue and American just began offering commercial flights to and from Havana. Southwest will begin flying there on Dec. 12. “It’s also telling that American is cutting back its daily flights to Cuba in February,” said Mr. Saglie. According to news reports, a spokesman for American said the airline plans to drop three daily round-trip flights, but that the decision was made before the election and was not based on Mr. Trump’s recent comments but rather lower than expected demand. As The Points Guy blog, founded by Brian Kelly, put it in a post: “While airlines are famously hush-hush about their operational performance, the slew of cheap fares to Cuba show that airlines have been struggling to fill seats. Now, we have much more solid proof that US-Cuba flights aren’t working out the way airlines expected.” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said there will soon be 110 daily flights from the United States to Cuba.
Despite the rising number of available commercial flights, hotels are only just now opening or planning to open, another reason some travelers would rather wait to plan a trip. “Our main problem is securing space in lovely hotels for our clients, as there aren’t that many in Havana yet,” said Ms. Moss of Miami. In June, Four Points by Sheraton Havana became the first American hotel to open in Cuba in nearly 60 years. The month before, Carnival Corporation became the first U.S. cruise company to sail from the United States to Cuba in more than 50 years. And most recently, Airbnb announced that Havana was one of the first dozen cities in the world to offer Airbnb “experiences” (activities like cooking and painting lessons) as part of the company’s new Trips platform.
These and other brands are banking on Cuba remaining open to travelers, despite Mr. Trump’s remarks. Pamela Lassers, a spokeswoman for Abercrombie & Kent, said in an email that the company’s Cuba by Land & Sea cruises in March have waiting lists or limited availability.
“We are hopeful,” she said, “that President-elect Trump’s extensive business and hospitality background will make him receptive to the value that travel can play in improving international relations.”
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