It’s an understatement to say that the second half of 2016 was a significant and evolutionary time for Cuba.
In November 2016, Fidel Castro, the divisive politician and revolutionary figure who was instrumental in keeping the so-called “Pearl of the Antilles” notoriously secret and secluded, died at the age of 90. Coincidentally, his death came just a few months after commercial airlines were finally allowed, in August 2016, to offer flights to several destinations in Cuba. Why is this a big deal? For more than half a century, travel between the United States and Cuba has been complicated since the U.S. imposed a severe trade embargo against the tropical island nation in 1960.
Please note that we say travel has been complicated, not impossible! Lucky for you, our Destination Management Company (DMC) Vaya Sojourns has been a leader in group travel to Cuba. We recently sat down with Vaya Sojourns’ Managing Director Jordan Marona and President Lee Marona to learn all about MICE and Cuba.
Here’s what they had to say…
Q: What do you enjoy about working in the Cuban travel industry?
VS: We’re opening a new market! Dipping into lesser-known traveled areas, getting outside of the box and figuring out how to work with them. Cuba is a very exciting and interesting destination with a heavy “forbidden fruit” factor. Understandably so since we haven’t been able to travel there for over half a century!
Q: What makes Cuba perfect for MICE and sets it apart from other destinations?
VS: It depends on what the group wants to accomplish. Cuba is perfect if you’re looking for something new, exciting and close. The life of Cuba – arts, music, architecture – surrounds you. The infrastructure can handle top quality and deluxe planners, so with proper planning and enough time, there is no reason why you cannot produce fantastic programs. Meeting rooms, A/V equipment, exciting things to do and see, the culture/music arts… it’s all here.
Q: Are there any restrictions on who can travel to Cuba?
VS: The U.S. government and, to a lesser degree, the Cubans, have both played a part in trying to define the types of people that they want to travel to Cuba. If you want to travel to Cuba legally, there are requirements that you have to meet. We absolutely need to make sure people are legally traveling here and we would never cheat on those legal requirements. There are people-to-people requirements that make it an interesting tour for incentive clients as well as meeting planners. Meeting planners need to be more careful, depending on their objectives and we work with them one-on-one to get that process in place.
Q: What is the hotel infrastructure like? Will the hotels guarantee space more than 12 months out?
VS: That depends on which 12 months we’re talking about and how large the group is! Cubans have unique advance booking procedures. It seems to change around November 1st, then again from low and peak season. It’s a very unique destination in terms of operating. They can be challenging to work with; but luckily Vaya Sojourns manages all this!
Q: Since U.S. and Cuba relations were restored, many DMCs and tour operators now claim to be Cuba DMCs. What’s your take on that? Is there really such a “thing” as a Cuba DMC?
VS: To my knowledge, we are the only company in the entire U.S. that actually has a corporate partnership. Vaya Sojourns is a true DMC since we only work directly with travel industry professionals, not consumers. We are in control of all of it so we can control the quality. It’s one thing to say you’re a DMC, but here you’re forced by Cuban government regulations to work with one of the three approved agencies. Not only are we licensed by the Cuban government, our staff members also have their finger on the pulse 24/7, working with Cuban travel industry professionals,doing the day-to-day labor of confirming hotels, guides, restaurants, transportation, booking buses, etc.
Q: Please explain Vaya Sojourns partnership with Transnico and how this helps position Vaya Sojourns in the MICE community
VS: We applied for and received our first Travel Service Provider license issued by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in 2009. That license was renewed by OFAC in 2014. Since that time Vaya Sojourns began working exclusively with Transnico International, a Belgian-owned company fully licensed by the Cuban government and Cuban Ministry of Tourism as a DMC.
Q: What sort of changes do you see in the future for U.S.-Cuba travel, both for groups and transient?
VS: Based on the results of the U.S. election, we’re not really sure! But our ability to provide a high-quality program will remain the same. Our projection for the future is that U.S.-Cuba travel will grow exponentially over the next few years. For many reasons: the U.S. now has an economic interest in Cuba. Historic flights into Havana on American Airlines and JetBlue Airways commenced in late November 2016. In total, eight U.S. Carriers have received U.S. Department of Transportation approval to operate direct flights into Cuba. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has come on board with trade with Cuba. The Cubans want to trade with us, and the reluctance is disappearing. With buses, restaurants, hotels and more, there are heavy economic interest and investments that are going into tourism infrastructure. For 50 years, it was a political issue, but now it’s an economic reality. Hopefully our relations will continue based on the goodwill that’s happened over the last eight years.
Q: From a planner perspective: My client wants to consider Cuba, where’s the best place to start?
VS: Your first call should be to Exclusive Destinations to learn why there’s no better time to travel to Cuba.
Are your clients in New York City? They can be in Havana in three and a half hours, just in time for dinner and an art tour. What about Los Angeles? In just over five hours, your clients can be sipping a cocktail Hemingway would approve of in Havana. Vaya Sojourns has sent thousands to Cuba and would be more than happy to become your Cuba resource.
Ready to plan your next incentive trip? Contact us today for more information. Hasta Pronto!