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Tour operators have mixed reactions to latest loosening of Cuba restrictions

New steps taken by the Obama administration to further reduce restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba are being welcomed by U.S. tour operators, but with little enthusiasm because the changes will have little immediate effect on travel.

The lifting of restrictions on travel has already overtaken the capacity of Cuba to handle the increased flow of tourists.

Modified regulations are set to go into effect Sept. 21 and are designed to ease the flow of business between the countries in the fields of travel, telecommunications, banking, Internet-based services and business operations in general.

The current changes in rules will not affect who can visit Cuba, but they will open some possibilities for travel by offering the chance for transportation companies to become licensed to provide transportation to Cuba.

New rules will make it easier for U.S.-based firms to export computer and Internet technology to Cuba, will also eliminate caps on the amounts of money that can be sent from the U.S. to Cubans and will allow American travelers to open bank accounts in Cuba.

Under the new rules, U.S. firms can export civil aviation equipment to Cuba. Internet-based educational courses will be allowed onto the island and disaster relief will be allowed by the U.S. government.

Though the relaxing of restrictions is incremental, any sign of reduced barriers to travel to Cuba is welcomed by American tour operators, who are already enjoying a boom in demand for travel to Cuba.

“This is tremendous news,” said John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours. “Last week was our highest week yet for sales of our programs to Cuba. Yet the greatest single barrier we have had to face with prospective travelers is that they fear 'regimentation' more than anything. They want an experience that allows them to have organized independence and this will certainly bode well as we move forward with plans for upcoming departures.”

Although American travelers continue to move toward preferring greater independence when they travel, Cuba is a special case. Independent travel in Cuba will continue to be difficult for the foreseeable future not only because of the restrictions by the U.S. government, but because of the limits in capacity and the infrastructure in Cuba. So people-to-people travel continues to be the most attractive and effective means of traveling in Cuba for most Americans.

Though people-to-people travel is highly restricted, it also provides maximum opportunities for personal interaction and cultural exchange with the natives, opportunities that are increasingly desired by American travelers in virtually all destinations.

“Ironically our programs, which operate under the people-to-people banner, have been coming back with ratings that go through the roof,” said Stachnik, “so we do not want to lose too much of the flavor of Cuba by creating only independent vacations, rather than the life-enriching experiences we promise our travelers.”

Tour operators believe that the additional opening of trade between the two countries will encourage more travel to Cuba by those who want to see the island before the changes that will inevitably come as relations between the two countries continue to open.

“I think these additional steps encourage the continued growth of people-to-people travel to Cuba,” said Robert Drumm, president of Alexander + Roberts. “This ‘deeper green light’ makes the appeal of visiting Cuba at this transitional time greater, before Cuba experiences wider change.”

“As Cuba continues to enhance and improve accommodations, restaurants and activities, many Americans will become more and more intrigued with the prospect of visiting,” said a spokeswoman for Collette, the Rhode Island-based tour operator. “These changes will increase economic development and will aid in tourism as well.”

However, while the relaxation of restrictions can increase the flow of visitors to Cuba, it does not in itself provide more places for them to stay when they get there.

Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours, said that the rate of the relaxation of restrictions has already outpaced Cuba’s capacity to accommodate those who do travel to Cuba.

“This change will have no effect because Cuba, as is, is oversold,” said Paldi. “There is not enough space at the hotels, and ‘easing more the embargo’ will only create more pressure on a limited infrastructure.”

On the other hand, the limited capacity of Cuba makes the support provided by the people-to-people model of travel more attractive and practical.

“The main issue is really hotel space,” said Gianni Miradoli, CEO of Central Holidays. “Cuba cannot accommodate mass traffic currently. The number of Hotel rooms that can be utilized by the American market (four and five star properties) are very limited and consequently only tour operators that can assure blocks of space can work with Cuba travels.”

“The practical issues of a weak tourism infrastructure — and extraordinarily limited hotel availability suitable for American travelers — makes people-to-people touring by land or water the most appropriate way to visit this beautiful and arresting island,” said Alexander + Roberts’ Drumm.

The full text of the new regulations will be unveiled on Monday.

“What I’ve read so far is positive,” said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, “but it won’t affect tours and travel in a significant way. However, the Department of Treasury said the new regulations will come out on Monday, so let’s see what they say.”

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