Survey suggests few Americans booking new cruises to Cuba

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While still awaiting approval from Cuban authorities, Carnival Corp.’s new Fathom brand is proceeding with plans to sail to the Caribbean island by May 1 next year.

NEW YORK, United States, Monday September 7, 2015 – While the improvement of relations between the United States and Cuba has triggered a race among cruise lines to operate between the two countries, few Americans have booked the trips so far, according to a survey conducted for USA TODAY by one of North America’s largest travel organisations.

Although the survey of 1,034 travel agents who book cruises by Travel Leaders Group found that nearly 42 percent experienced customer interest in the new Cuba sailings, only 2.9 percent have taken bookings for the trips.

According to Travel Leaders Group spokesperson Kathy Gerhardt: “There is excitement and interest, but it really is too early to see that translate into a significant amount of bookings.”

Travel Leaders Group encompasses nearly one-third of all travel agents in North America, generating gross travel sales of approximately US$20 billion a year.

USA Today reports that the survey, conducted from August 3 to 25, included responses from travel agency owners, managers, and front-line travel agents from the Travel Leaders brand, along with those affiliated with Travel Leaders Group’s Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, Results! Travel, Travel Leaders Corporate, Tzell Travel Group and Vacation.com units.

In recent months, small-ship lines Pearl Seas Cruises and Haimark, as well as cruise giant Carnival’s new Fathom brand, have announced new Cuba cruises from Miami.

The parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises is also looking into launching Cuba cruises. Several North America-based tour operators, including such giants as Globus, have also started selling Cuba cruises using space on a 960-passenger Cuba-based ship operated by Celestyal Cruises, as well as by chartering smaller vessels.

One factor that may be keeping some Americans from booking the trips is that general leisure travel from the US to Cuba, including traditional cruises, is still banned. Only “people-to-people” exchanges are allowed under the US’ five-decade-old embargo of Cuba.

Under these rules, people-to-people trips to Cuba must fall under one or more of twelve key categories including educational, cultural or religious exchanges and sporting events.

They are not tourist-oriented, and breaking away from the group for self-directed exploring or skipping an activity is not allowed.

Additionally, the cruises are beyond many people’s price range, with Fathom’s new sailings starting at nearly US$6,000 per couple for a week-long trip, not including taxes and port fees. That’s more than triple the starting price for a typical seven-night Caribbean sailing with Carnival Corporation’s flagship Carnival brand, according to USA Today.

Demand for Cuba cruises is nevertheless expected to soar if traditional sailings to the country become available and it is not hard to see why.

Apart from the sun, sea, scenery and historic attractions the island shares with so many of its Caribbean neighbours, Cuba boasts everything from its legendary cigars to classic 1950s cars rumbling through the streets of one of the last bastions of communism in the world.

In the words of the BBC’s Will Grant: “Cuba boasts something unique in the international tourism market: that intangible stamp of ‘authenticity’ which so many visitors demand.”

In a Travel Leaders Group survey of more than 3,000 travellers earlier this year, 8.8 percent of respondents said they would go to Cuba immediately if all restrictions on travel were lifted. Another 14.9 percent said they would go as soon as they believed Cuba was ready for Americans, with 35.4 percent more saying they might consider going.

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