Michael Goren was enjoying a morning on a mega-yacht in Havana when he received a call from his office in New York. The voice on the other end told him to go find a television, big news was breaking.
The owner of Group IST, a tour operator, was in the middle of leading a people-to-people sailing excursion in Cuba. He left the port and walked over to the San Felipe Hotel in Old Havana. He planted himself in front of CNN to hear the historic announcement: The United States would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Bring down that, er, palm tree.
The faces around him — those of waiters, bartenders, other guests — broke out in smiles. Rum flowed. Glasses magically refilled.
“Everybody was celebrating and drinking,” he said by phone from Cuba. “I think it’s going to continue on and on.”
U.S. travel experts reacted to the axis-shifting development in different shades of thrilled. Peggy Goldman, who owns Pennsylvania-based Friendly Planet Travel, was giddy — and productive. She immediately called her lawyer who specializes in Cuban issues and the company that handles visas for her three Cuban itineraries.
“This is just remarkable,” she said. “It is almost like the end of the Ice Age.”
For more than 50 years, a giant, unyielding glacier has blocked the path between the United States and Cuba. American citizens could only travel to the largest Caribbean island with specialized groups, such as educational, cultural or religious, or on escorted tours, such as people-to-people excursions, a category of Cuba travel the Obama administration introduced in 2011.
Once there, tourists would have to leave their capitalistic tendencies at the border. The country does not accept U.S. dollars or credit cards, and cards from U.S.-based companies don’t work at Cuban ATMs. There weren’t stogie or rum souvenirs for your officemates, despite their begging and pleading.
In response to the draconian regulations, tour operators had to rely on some clever navigational skills and organizational tools, plus a heap of patience.
For example, because the Cuban Interest Section in Washington could not establish privileges with any U.S. banks, Goldman paid for visas with suitcases full of cash. To include a two-day visit to the beachy resort area of Varadero (technically, a place of leisure), she spent nearly a year researching cultural activities that would satisfy the Treasury Department’s requirements for a people-to-people tour license. She discovered the Coincidence Farm, an art colony/agricultural center.
If the warming trend turns truly sunny, Americans’ past travel difficulties could become an artifact of Old Cuba, a relic that shares shelf space with the capital’s crumbling colonial buildings and 1950s-era cars.
“We won’t be able to hop on a flight and spend a week at a resort until the embargo ends,” said Goldman, who has several new trips ready to submit for federal approval. “But it will be much easier for Americans to explore Cuba in a variety of ways. The list of reasons will be expanded.”
Sip that Cuba Libre slowly, though, because the changes could take awhile.
“In the beginning, it will be a niche audience,” said Clayton Reid, chief executive of MMGY, a travel marketing agency, referring to the class of adventure travelers who don’t require a certain thread count. “There are still some stigmas associated with Cuba, and it will take a while for the infrastructure to be created.”
Reactions from air carriers and cruise lines were cautious, if not a little bit party balloon-deflating.
“There are a number of factors for consideration before a cruise line would commit to adding a destination to an itinerary,” read a statement from the Cruise Lines International Association. “With Cuba, these include infrastructure and port facilities, and regulatory and policy considerations.”
But tour operators have enough air in their grinning cheeks to keep the optimism afloat.
Goldman, for one, had more calls to make. Next on her list: contact her representatives in Havana and ask them to double-up on hotel inventory. And Goren needed another rum cocktail and lunch — momentous events can make a person hungry.