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Havana, Cuba tourism travel

Survey says: Cuba travel on the uptick

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posted April 9, 2019
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Travel from the United States to Cuba is expected to increase in 2019, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Responsible Travel, or CREST, a nonprofit research organization.

In the survey of U.S. tour operators and other service providers to Cuba, the majority of respondents expect travel bookings to Cuba to increase in 2019, despite continuing public misperceptions that the Trump administration's Cuba travel regulations make travel to the island illegal.


Responses to specific types of travel include the following:

  • Of those involved in U.S. people-to-people travel to Cuba, 55 percent said they expect their bookings to Cuba to increase in 2019, 23 percent expect a decrease and the remainder expect numbers to say the same.
  • Of the respondents involved in U.S. study abroad travel to Cuba, 60 percent expect their bookings to increase, and 20 percent expect a decrease.
  • Of the respondents involved in cruise bookings to Cuba, 71 percent expect their bookings to increase, and only one respondent expects a decrease in 2019.

“Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world to visit, and we are pleased that U.S. tour operators have indicated that American travel to Cuba, and especially people-to-people travel, is expected to rise in 2019,” said Martha Honey, executive director of CREST. “People-to-people trips to Cuba offer fully immersive and authentic educational experiences, and best of all, the island is reachable within a few hours from the East Coast.”

A group from CREST visits Viñales, Cuba travel tourism
A group from CREST visits Viñales, Cuba (Photo by Center for Responsible Travel)

The findings come in the run-up to the November celebration of Havana’s 500th anniversary, and the destination is preparing for the expansion of its cultural programming and infrastructure, breathing new life to the capital city.

In 2018, a total of 638,360 U.S. travelers visited Cuba, up 2.8 percent from 2017. This increase was due in large part to U.S. cruise ship arrivals, which nearly doubled in 2018. U.S. air travel to the island decreased by 34 percent in 2018.

CREST survey respondents attributed a decline in travel to Cuba during the first half of 2018 to the U.S. State Department imposing a “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” advisory for Cuba in September 2017, which has since been changed. Along with the mistaken belief that U.S. travel to Cuba was illegal, operators also cited travelers’ fear of being subjected to unnecessary scrutiny by U.S. authorities as being responsible for the decline in 2018 travel.

U.S. changes to Cuba travel regulations in mid-2017 impacting travel to the island nation included steep cuts in diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana and bans on specific types of travel and business transactions. The majority of CREST survey respondents (62 percent) reported decreases in U.S. travelers visiting Cuba of 20 percent or more during the first half of 2018.


Part of a legacy

Havana, Cuba Tourism travel
1950s U.S. cars are common in Cuba because a 1959 ban on imports was only recently relaxed. (Photo by CC FLICKR/Pedro Szekely: bit.ly/2SYHAPH)

NTA-member Academic Travel Abroad has been offering people-to-people trips around the world for decades, starting with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and China as early as 1979.

“Our Cuba trips are part of that legacy,” says Kate Simpson, president of the Washington, D.C.-based company. “There is a justified fascination with countries so different from our own. And Cuba is even more compelling, as it lies so near our shores and has maintained a vibrant artistic and musical tradition throughout its history.”

Through its study abroad division, CET Academic Programs, ATA has plans to establish a high school program in Havana and a college semester-long program in Santiago soon.

“We hope that the exciting events and developments to come in 2019 elevate overall awareness of the destination, and that Americans are reassured that it is legal and safe to travel to this unique and compelling destination,” Simpson says.

Email Simpson or go to academic-travel.com to find out more about Academic Travel Abroad.

CREST is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to increasing the positive global impact of responsible tourism in Cuba and around the world. To learn more, go to responsibletravel.org.


What NTA operators should know

Academic Travel Abroad President Kate Simpson offers the following four bits of advice for NTA members who are considering adding a Cuba program.

  • You should seek legal counsel to ensure you navigate the intricacies of laws in both countries along with other Cuba travel regulations.
  • Be prepared for some nail-biting, as Cuba takes time to finalize arrangements and prices. Normal planning timelines do not apply, so be prepared to estimate and take some leaps of faith! Cuba always comes through in the end with fantastic experiences, though.
  • Set expectations carefully: 4- or 5-star ratings in Cuba are a full level lower than international standards, and the quality of the food is mediocre in most places. Paladares (family-run restaurants) offer better fare, but nothing truly gourmet.
  • Service, however, is generally wonderful! The Cubans are naturally warm and welcoming and willing to make guests happy.

Top photo: Havana cityscape
Photo by CC Flickr/Pedro Szekely: bit.ly/2Uvz6RB