Cuba tour operators began to notice a curious thing in the dead of summer this year. Bookings to the island began to increase month over month, following a drastic slump.
“We’ve gotten back to a more normal situation over the past two to three months. Sales have really picked up,” said Collin Laverty, president of Cuban Educational Travel, which offers cultural, educational, event and luxury travel to Cuba.
The spike followed a rough patch when Cuba became a less appealing destination as Irma hit the island’s north coast in September 2017, the U.S. published confusing new regulations for travelers to the island, and the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert warning Americans to reconsider travel to Cuba in the wake of a mysterious ailment that made 26 Havana-based diplomats sick at their homes and two hotels.
The hurricane and publicity about the diplomats’ illnesses “dampened demand right at a time when travelers generally book trips for the winter season,” said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, which offers a wide variety of people-to-people tours to Cuba.
“A year ago it was the never-ending story of the attacks on the diplomats,” said Laverty. Because some of the health incidents, which are still of unknown origin, occurred in a room at the Hotel Nacional and two rooms at the Hotel Capri, the U.S. State Department warned Americans against travel to Cuba, first in a travel advisory last year and then in a Level 3 travel alert that advised travelers to reconsider trips to Cuba.
In August, the alert was downgraded to Level 2, (exercise increased caution) and that has perked up Americans’ interest in visiting the island, said Laverty who has handled arrangements for hundreds of U.S. schools, colleges and universities that have academic exchange programs in Cuba.
Some schools don’t allow any student travel to a country where a travel advisory or Level 3 alert is in place, so they couldn’t offer Cuba programs this year. “Now that the travel alert has been downgraded, many of these schools are going back and reinstating their programs for March 2019,” Laverty said.
Despite the alerts, Road Scholar, which has been offering people-to-people trips to Cuba since 1997, has continued to book its groups into the Hotel Nacional, which the State Department still advises U.S. travelers to avoid along with the Capri even though the health incidents have only involved U.S. diplomatic personnel.
For James Moses, president and chief executive of Boston-based Road Scholar, Cuba remains a safe destination.
“We did our due diligence and talked to the State Department and concluded that these [health incidents] were so specific,” he said. “It’s always been specific to diplomats. The incidents weren’t generalized. Our travelers’ safety is always our top concern.”