Wed | Aug 16, 2017

Travel demand to Cuba softens

Published:Friday | December 9, 2016 | 12:00 AM
In this April 7, 2009 file photo, tourists ride in classic cars along Havana's Malecon. More Americans have been visiting Cuba in 2016 with the thawing of relations, but signs indcate demand may be slowing.

Demand for travel to Cuba may be flattening, with soaring hotel prices on the island, American Airlines cutting some flights, and uncertainty over whether new travel restrictions could be imposed when Donald Trump takes office.

Gregory Geronemus, co-CEO of smarTours, a tour company that has taken 3,000 Americans to Cuba, confirms there has been a softening in demand.

In part he blamed hotel prices on the island, which have nearly doubled since 2015 and which are set by the government. "There's still demand, but there's only so much people can afford," he said.

Cheaper lodging is available through Airbnb and other services, but not all travellers want the hassles and uncertainty of travelling on their own in Cuba.

Geronemus said "Zika has cast a shadow" on the region too, despite the Cuban government's assertion that mosquito-abatement efforts have been successful. Zika, a mosquito-borne virus, can cause birth defects.

While an increasing number of airlines are offering flights, American Airlines is cutting three of its 13 daily flights to Cuba beginning February 16 and switching to smaller planes on some routes, said spokesman Matt Miller. He added that adjustments are common with new service and that the reduction was made before the presidential election.

ForwardKeys, which compiles data based on global reservations transactions, says it has not detected a drop in bookings for Cuba. And Cuban government statistics show an 80 per cent increase in visits by Americans the first six months of this year over the same period in 2015, from 76,183 to 136,913.

In the last few weeks, several United States airlines started regular commercial flights to Cuba. United Airlines launched Newark-Havana flights November 29 and Saturday service from Houston on December 3. Spokesman Jonathan Guerin said the airline is "prepared to work with the new administration" going forward. JetBlue, which also just launched service, would not provide specifics, but said "we are pleased with how flights to Cuba are selling".

Tanner Callais of Austin, Texas, who runs a cruise website called cruzely.com, had hoped to cruise to Cuba in 2017.

But "now with some of the things I've heard about tightening up restrictions on travel to Cuba, we're taking a wait-and-see approach", he said. "The last thing we want to do is put a lot of money down for a trip and then have the cruise cancelled due to new restrictions put in place."

Others are booking trips as soon as they can, fearing a Cuba travel ban under Trump. "Ordinarily, we book trips three to six months ahead, but people are calling this week to register for trips three weeks from now," said Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive director of GlobeAware, which organises volunteer trips.

Travel-ban concerns

Though Geronemus says the softening started "long before Trump was elected", some travellers are asking for reassurance that they would be covered if travel gets banned between the time they book their tickets and their planned trip. That has smarTours promising a full refund or credit for a discounted trip elsewhere should new rules make it impossible to go ahead with a trip, Geronemus says.

Erika Richter, spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, says "some people we talk to are convinced that everything will be rolled back on January 21. Others think, as a hospitality industry leader, (Trump) will not follow through. So, I think it's probable but not guaranteed that we see a rollback in early 2017."

But what Trump has in mind for Cuba is unclear. Three days after Fidel Castro's death, the president-elect tweeted: "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."

Some critics believe the Obama administration should have held out for democratic and human-rights reforms as part of the loosening of travel restrictions. But others think that stimulating Cuba's economy through travel - including inroads by US cruise, hotel and tour companies there - is the best way to bring change.

In May, Carnival Corp became the first US company in decades to run cruises to Cuba. On Wednesday, two US cruise companies, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean International, also received permission from the Cuban government to sail from the US to Cuba.

Haley-Coleman thinks the most likely scenario is a return to strict enforcement of rules for permitted types of trips. Even under President Obama, Americans can't go to Cuba as regular tourists. They have to certify that their trip falls into one of 12 permitted categories, including educational, humanitarian or cultural travel. Right now, though, that certification is done on the honour system.

Haley-Coleman thinks Trump may require itineraries be pre-approved to ensure Americans are not just drinking mojitos on the beach.

- AP