The number of U.S. citizens visiting Cuba in June 2018 reached 68,000, a 5 percent increase from 12 months earlier, according to published reports based on Cuban tourism statistics. It is the first year-to-year increase in 2018.
In a series of Cigar Aficionado interviews with tour operators, airlines and cruise ship lines, the rebound in American visitors to Cuba is leading them to add cruises, flights and People-to-People tours.
Vance Gullickson, of Carnival Cruise Line (CCL), says the company is adding 22 new sailings to their schedule, bringing the total of scheduled trips, mostly three to five days, from now until 2020 to 44. The CCL spokesperson says those cruises will include for the first time a departure from Charleston, South Carolina, aboard the passenger Carnival ship Sunshine, also the largest cruise ship to make ports of call in Cuba.
An American Airlines spokesperson says the airline is adding an additional daily flight from Miami to Havana on October 3, bringing the weekly total to 70 American flights from the United States to Cuba. The airline, which provides more Cuba flights than any other U.S. carrier, also has requested permission for an additional daily flight from Miami to Havana. “We believe that this additional weekly frequency will help us better meet the needs of local and connecting traffic through our Miami hub,” the spokesperson says.
Both Delta Airlines and JetBlue have also announced additional flights to Cuba in the upcoming months.
Tom Popper, of InsightCuba, the largest agency for legal People-to-People tours between the United States and Cuba, says that he is finally seeing more inquiries from people wanting to visit Cuba during the 2018–2019 winter season.
“The most important news is non-cruise arrivals are trending up and that’s not only good for Cuban tourism but good news for the Cuban people who are the direct beneficiaries of non-cruise visitations,” says Popper.
“We’ve received triple the amount of group requests in July than any month since July 2017. Our web traffic is also up 30 percent year-over-year as well as leads and interest,” Popper added. Popper said that the company has about 150 trips planned this year to Cuba, whereas at the peak of U.S-Cuba travel, they conducted over 200 trips a year.
However, the one-month jump in June has so far done little to offset the 25 to 30 percent decline during the first five months of 2018. The drop in U.S. visitors was triggered by several factors, including the Trump Administration’s announcement to more strictly enforce People-to-People travel regulations (the legal way to visit Cuba), the declaration of a travel alert based on U.S. diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana coming down with a mysterious illness and the devastation from Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
Popper says that InsightCuba arrivals during the first half of 2018 were down more than 30 percent over 2017.
Based on interviews with tour operators and other visitors to Cuba, the impact of the downturn has been severe. At one early point during the usually strong fall and winter season, some luxury Havana hotels were reporting less than 10 percent occupancy. One long-time veteran of the travel industry in Cuba reported that he took a group fishing on Cuba’s southern coast in July, and they were the first foreign visitors there since December; all the bookings for the winter months had been cancelled, and most of the cancellations were by Americans.
But the local buzz also is that the Cuban government, which sets most hotel room rates, has not responded to the drop off in visitors by reducing prices, a factor that had already begun to reduce the flow of visitors, especially from Europe, during 2017.
“Some of the hotels are still quoting $600 to $700 a night for rooms. The Cubans have forgotten that you have to offer value for money and higher standards that people expect when they pay those prices,” said one travel industry source. As a result, last year many large tour operations in Europe, the United Kingdom and Canada removed Cuba as one of their recommended destinations and began encouraging people to take trips to other islands and resort areas in the Caribbean.
“Every tourist who came here and felt ripped off by overcharging taxis, restaurants and other services goes home and tells 10 people not to go to Cuba,” says the source.
During our last visit to Cuba in February, Cigar Aficionado confirmed the sharp increases in prices for restaurant meals, and for things like rental cars, which are always in short supply in Havana. Iconic tourist activities, like riding around Havana in a vintage U.S. convertible, were also being hit by criticism that prices had gotten out of hand.