Last year, after President Obama relaxed travel restrictions to Cuba, this blog began to research incentive travel opportunities to the mysterious island 90 miles off our coast. Like many American travelers, incentive groups were captivated by Cuba’s promise of something new and different. Americans have been prohibited from traveling to Cuba since 1963, so curiosity alone has intensified the allure of our neighbor to the South.
After extensive research, we concluded last year that although Cuba presented a colorful and entertaining culture, wonderful food, rhythmic music and dance, intricate history, soothing climate, natural wonders, and a curiously “stuck-in-time” joyful population, it still had a long way to go to compete with other Caribbean destinations. Many minor but annoying travel restrictions still applied, airline travel was spotty, no cruise ships could sail from America, hotel quality was erratic at best, the currency was complicated and undependable, and communication could only be considered primitive. We decided to take another look this year to see if Cuba was ready to accommodate large incentive travel groups.
Despite the easing of travel restrictions and renewed interest by all travel suppliers, Cuba remains a challenging destination in many respects. Tourism isn’t new to Cuba. Europeans and Canadians, for instance, have been visiting the island all along. Still, the infrastructure doesn’t yet exist to support a major influx of large American groups.
- The entire island country of Cuba has only 15,000 to 18,000 hotel rooms. In comparison, Las Vegas alone has well in excess of 100,000. Cuba is not ready for big groups. Even if you have a small incentive group, you would do well to book your accommodations well in advance to insure availability.
- As a planner, you are probably used to negotiating your incentive travel program by line item. You deal with the hotel for some free rooms; work down the cost of food and beverage based on how many onsite meals and affairs you book; negotiate extra luxuries for VIPs with the surface travel provider; convince the hotel to throw in some tours and activities for the large group you are sending. Not in Cuba! In Cuba, you simply tell them what you want included and they quote you one price for all. That’s just the way they do business.
- Event planners must work through a licensed provider in the United States. In turn, that provider must use a Cuban counterpart. You cannot cut out the middle man.
- Some arcane travel restrictions still apply. You still need to include an element of community service, cultural exchange, education, religious activity, public performances, clinics, workshops, or athletic competition to be permitted to travel from the United States to Cuba. Technically, Americans still may not visit Cuba for “tourist activities”.
- Wi-Fi access is still scarce.
- Credit cards are generally not accepted and ATM withdrawals do not yet work.
- There is such a wide disparity of quality in accommodations, planners must conduct in-person site inspections. A Havana hotel may have refurbished its bar and lounge but you might be sleeping on the same mattress you would have slept on in 1959.
- Finally, the good news – In 2017, Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian have started sending vessels to Cuba from the States.
Where We Stand Now
Not with standing these limitations, we believe it is time to consider sending smaller incentive groups to Cuba. They are not yet ready to accommodate larger groups. The novelty, the culture, the natural beauty, the music, the dance, and the food all recommend Cuba as a unique incentive destination.