Demand for Cuba has never been higher, both from outside of the United States and now for travelers coming from the US on one of the U.S. government’s 12 approved licenses. That’s been a significant boost for established tour operators like Central Holidays, which now offers a wide range of tour packages to visit Cuba. To learn more, Cuba Journal talked to Arthur Berman, who recently became VP of Central Holidays’ new Latin America and Cuba division and said that Cuba travel has “nowhere to go but up.”
How would you describe the state of Cuba’s tourism sector right now?
It’s no secret that the future influx of Americans visiting Cuba has nowhere to go but UP! UP! UP! Having said that, the “monkey wrench” in actually seeing the numbers go up geometrically every year is the “current infrastructure of tourism” in Cuba – Not enough hotels, not enough buses, not enough guides to support the influx of travelers who visit Cuba. Hotel space is close to impossible to obtain in Cuba, as all of the really good hotels in Cuba are actually sold out between now and next December. However, Central Holidays has confirmed deluxe hotel space in Havana and beyond through December 2017 at first-class properties so guests won’t have any issue with hotel accommodations while visiting.
How would you describe the hotel stock in Cuba?
Hotels in Cuba run the full gamut from what we call top-of –the-line deluxe right down to bed and breakfasts, and everything in between.
What kind of response have you been seeing from your Cuba tour takers?
Nearly everyone from Cuba raves about their experience in this once-forbidden country. They’ve all had a great time.
Can you explain how people-to-people travel is different from regular tourism?
People-to-people travel allows Americans to travel to Cuba through a legal tour operator, providing guests with a group/escorted opportunity to explore Cuba from an educational, historic, and cultural standpoint, while also giving them a chance to have meaningful exchanges with the locals. Central Holidays is licensed via the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Every program includes a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities, including interactions with Cuba’s musicians, artists, naturalists and new generation of entrepreneurs. Central Holidays offers an all-inclusive experience, including a professional English-speaking Cuban guide as well as a Central Holidays tour manager, all meals, hotels and activities planned out, roundtrip air between Miami and Cuba, Cuban visa and taxes included, etc.
Regular tourism might just involve someone going to Cuba on their own to sit on a beach or just to party, which the government of the United States does not at this time permit. The only way an American can visit Cuba today as almost a tourist is on a people-to-people exchange program.
While President Obama’s historic announcement last December has spurred an even greater urgency to visit Cuba now before it changes, mass confusion still abounds right now with the public thinking they can call their travel agent and book a beach vacation in Cuba just like the rest of the Caribbean, which is not the case. Americans still must travel with a group and participate in a people-to-people exchange program.
What are some of the tours Central Holidays provides in Cuba?
Below are highlights from Central Holidays’ six unique programs:
Afro Cubanismo (10 Days/9 Nights)
Start off the journey through Cuba in the capital of Havana where highlights include a visit the Museum of the Revolution housed in the former presidential palace, speaking with the Afro-Cuban community of Regla, and meeting a well-known Afro-Cuban filmmaker and expert in Cuba race relations. After a short flight to Santiago de Cuba to explore the birthplace of some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, it’s on to Camagüey to explore its many UNESCO World Heritage sites, see the city’s lavish churches and enjoy a live Afro-Cuba jazz show at a local nightclub.
L’Chaim Cuba (9 Days/8 Nights)
Begin the adventure in Cienfuegos with a walking tour of Cuba’s “Pearl of the South” before meeting with local residents and business owners and joining the members of the small Jewish Community of Cienfuegos. Following a full-day excursion to the colorful colonial city of Trinidad, the adventure continues in Havana with a tour of the old city and visit to Ernest Hemingway’s winter home where the author kept a 9,000-volume library. Next is a tour of the Orthodox Adath Israel Synagogue, the only shul with a mikvah in Cuba, a meeting with the only kosher butcher in Cuba, a visit of Sephardic synagogue Centro Safardi and the opportunity to attend Shabbat services at Temple Beth Shalom.
A Taste of Havana (6 Days/5 Nights)
Step into the past upon arrival in Havana with a stop at Revolution Square where American classic cars abound. Next, in the small fishing village of Jaimanitas, explore the home, gallery and workshop of the “Picasso of Cuba,” artist Jose Fuster followed by a special performance by Habana Compas dance troupe, and a Buena Vista Social Club dinner show. A walking tour of Old Havana with a local architect will showcase the crumbling buildings of yesteryear and the renovations ongoing to bring them back to life. Then, a short drive transports guests into the world of Ernest Hemingway at his farm Finca La Vigia where he penned many of his greatest works. Throughout the journey, enjoy the opportunity to meet the locals during dinners at Havana’s paladares, privately-owned small restaurants serving authentic Cuban dishes.
The City & The Sea (9 Days/8 Nights)
Begin with two days in the resort town of Varadero for a cultural infusion – traditional dance lessons, touring an art school, meeting local students, and visiting a rationing store to learn about the government food distribution program. Next, tour Havana’s fascinating arts and dance projects, see Old Havana, and visit El Morro fortress. After a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s house enjoy a special jazz performance. Next, an all-day excursion to the eco-village of Las Terrazas, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and site of Cuba’s earliest surviving coffee plantations, is planned, followed by a short drive to the small fishing village of Cojimar, the inspiration for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
Hola Cuba (9 Days/8 Nights)
In Havana explore the nation’s storied history and lively culture by meeting local artists, dancers, musicians and cigar rollers, visiting museums and rum factories, tasting its authentic fare at locally-run paladares, and much more. Continue to Cienfuegos to visit the verdant botanical garden before day-tripping to the colonial city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the evenings, optional activities include taking in a live jazz or Buena Vista Social Club show, enjoying some of Cuba’s finest rum cocktails, strolling through Old Havana’s winding cobblestone streets, or getting dessert at Coppelia, one of the largest ice cream parlors in the world.
‘Cruise Around Cuba’ (9 Days/8 Nights)
‘Cruise Around Cuba’ aboard the luxury Celestyal Crystal, which sails through old Havana, Maria La Gorda, Cienfuegos, Montego Bay (Jamaica), and Santiago de Cuba.
“Anyone who just hops on a plane to Cuba looking for a beach vacation is not someone who would naturally book a trip through us anyways.”
Do you have a favorite spot in Cuba?
Sipping cocktails on the balcony of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, overlooking the beautiful Caribbean water.
If and when Cuba travel is legalized, how will that affect Central Holidays?
Central Holidays is not concerned about business in this regards. Our programs are known for their quality escorted tours all over the word, designed to be educational, artistic, and culturally-enriching experiences that immerse our guests into Cuban life and give them the opportunity to interact with the locals. And that is what our type of guests want out of the trip. Anyone who just hops on a plane to Cuba looking for a beach vacation is not someone who would naturally book a trip through us anyways. It’s not our audience.
What makes Cuba a unique travel destination?
Cuba is the only place in the world where one can go back 50 years in time when there was no Internet, no ATM cards, old-fashioned vehicles, etc. It’s the Havana of yesteryear.