‘Change is Afoot:’ One-on-One With Tom Popper, Insight Cuba

The demand for Cuba is huge and not letting up, in spite of a U.S. embargo on Cuba since 1963. Insight Cuba, one of the premier Cuba operators, has been on the front lines of travel to Cuba since 2000. Travel Pulse spoke with Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, about the ongoing changes on the island and in the American market for travel to Cuba.

TravelPulse: Last November M&T Bank stopped providing financial services for the Cuban government, putting the visa process for Americans in jeopardy. Has Cuba been able to get another American bank yet?

Tom Popper: I don’t even know how to explain it. I do know that the bank problem has not been officially resolved. There is some kind of work-around that has been created. Nobody’s saying what that is. From a travel standpoint, from a visa standpoint I haven’t heard about anyone having trouble at all. Somehow it’s resolved, but I guess the banks are being the banks. It’s one of those situations where I ask the question and I’m being told, “Don’t worry.”

TravelPulse: It’s the Cuban Interests Section [the Cuban government] that’s telling you it’s okay?

Popper: Yeah. I don’t think we’re the only organization in that mode. I think it’s safe to say that there’s been no impact on the issuance of visas as a result of the banking problem.

TravelPulse: So the banking problem is just up in the air, but it doesn’t seem to affect anything.

Popper: Not yet. This November will be a year since the problem arose. The banks are saying it’s the U.S. government and they don’t want to take the risk. And the U.S. government is saying it’s fine. So the banks say, “Well stop nailing us.”

Part of the reason the banks are reluctant, it isn’t so much about the fines, it is that they are required to implement OFAC Compliance Software. And the cost is prohibitive.

TravelPulse: But you’ve seen no impact on the issue of visas?

Popper: Everybody’s been able to get visas. Will that change one day? I don’t know. But usually when somebody gets into a pinch with anything they will call around and say, “What are you doing?” Nobody has called saying, “Do you have extra visas? Can you help us out?” I think everybody’s been managing, somehow. Nobody really knows how.

It’s OK. As long as the tourist cards are being issued, that’s great. So as you see we are churning out new tours, new initiatives. Business is great. We’re growing this year.

TravelPulse: The growth is just limited by capacity, right?

Popper: No. Between 2011 and 2013 there were huge growth spurts. There was an article that just came out from the Cuban Tourism Bureau saying that they were actually down. Total numbers were down and also U.S. travelers were down. It’s hard to know how much of that is People to People, they don’t offer that. It includes illegal travelers, people-to-people, religious travel. It’s a lot of different things.

The demand heated up really quickly and I thought it would start to plateau. But we’re seeing growth. We’ll be entering our fourth year since the license reissue. We naturally predicted that it would start to slow down. One, because the newness of it is starting to wear off and there are many licensees. So we were expecting to have a flat year and instead we’re up about 18 percent.

TravelPulse: Most people would call that a great growth rate.

Popper: Oh yeah, we’re happy. You know, in business it’s really great now, but then you start looking at 2015 and — should we start worrying? You know it turns around in a minute. But bookings for 2015 are also looking good. We’re about even pace with last year, with our 2013 numbers. So our projections indicate we’ll have as good a year this year as we had last year.

TravelPulse: Do you have any problems with capacity? Can you take all the people who are coming to you?

Popper: Yes. We haven’t had any issues with flights or hotels.

TravelPulse: I saw a new land-and-sea program you are offering with Louis Cruises. That’s the first of those I’ve seen. Is it the first?

Popper: It’s not the first one. We found out about the boat in January of 2013. I literally saw a press release from Cuba Cruises. I called the president of the company and said, “We want to do this. This is too cool.” The boat starts in Montego Bay and goes around Cuba and goes back to Montego Bay. I thought, what a great experience! Different hotel experience, different food experience, different transportation experience. You don’t have to fly into Havana. There are more direct flights to Montego Bay.

So it created a different access point. So like with everything we do, we consulted with OFAC [the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the branch of the U.S. Treasury Department that regulates travel to Cuba under the U.S. embargo.]

I told them, this is what we know. Here’s the ship. We know that OFAC would have asked, which percentage of the boat has U.S.-manufactured parts. That’s a normal part of their criteria to determine if it’s in violation of the U.S. embargo. So we sent in all that information. It was basically an application. We just wanted permission.

We talked to the cruise company and it seemed like a workable situation. But what we learned in talking to OFAC is that they would permit us to run people to people trips via the boat under the condition that the passengers had to fly to Havana and disembark in Havana.

They could not go to Montego Bay and get off the boat in Montego Bay. The reason they stipulated this is that there is no regulation, nothing that authorizes a sea faring vessel to bring Americans into Cuba.They authorize direct flights, charters, that’s how they do it. They license airlines to bring passengers direct from the U.S. So they were not in a position to grant authorization from Montego Bay.

That forced us to be creative and we created a land-and-sea program. Basically we fly into Havana, spend six days on land. We go to Cienfuegos and get on the boat and then we go around the west and north side of the island ending up in Santiago de Cuba.

We make another quick stop in Havana. There are two stops in Havana, both of which are great because on one we stay at the Melia Cohiba and then the second time you’ll spend one night and day in Havana Harbor, which is pretty cool in itself. The view from upper deck must be tremendous. I’ve never been in Havana Harbor at that elevation. But I can only imagine you can see all the surrounding area in the harbor and probably have a really great view of Old Havana from there. That’s kind of special.

TravelPulse: So it was not the first land-sea program?

Popper: No, while we were talking about it with OFAC Road Scholar jumped in. I said, “Wait a minute, we’re just talking to OFAC about it, how could you have beaten us to the punch?” They launched a land and sea trip then pulled it back, probably because someone said something about it. Then they relaunched it. They ran a couple of departures I think last spring.

TravelPulse: That expands the possibilities quite a lot. How many trips do you offer now?

Popper: We have 140 departures. We have six signature tours and three specialty tours. The signature tours operator all year round. Undiscovered Cuba, Classic Cuba, Scenic Cuba, Vintage Cuba, Jazz in Havana and Weekend in Havana, those are our signature tours.

We’ve created a different product line called Specialty Tours, which includes Havana Marathon, Cuba by Land and Sea and the Havana Art Biennial. The specialty tours are usually focused around events or limited offerings. Cuba by Land and Sea is a limited offering.

The Havana Art Biennial tour, which will be in May 2015, that’s a huge deal. It’s when the city of Havana turns into a giant art expo and you can be walking anywhere, down any alley, any street and there can be art, sculpture displays that are really phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it in any city.

It’s an international festival. “Biennial” means it’s held every two years. But last year was the year it was supposed to happen and it never happened. So it’s been three years, and we get calls from people all the time about it. We’ll post a date and it will sell out immediately. It’s like trying to get Rolling Stones tickets.

It’s because there are artists from all over the world. The access to the artists is there. The artwork is everywhere. It’s an amazing festival, probably the best festival that happens, as far as being well done. Everywhere you go a smile happens on your face because there is something really cool just hanging there. They paint the sides of buildings, they sculpt buildings. It’s everywhere.

The marathon’s coming up this November. We’re sold out but we’ll probably add a departure. Eric Nadel, who’s a 35-year broadcaster with the Rangers, is hosting the baseball trip with us. So anyone into baseball can hang out and spend a week with a guy like that. It’s an insider track to Cuban baseball.

TravelPulse: So what else can you tell us about Cuba today before we go?

Popper: The Marathon tour is two months old. The Biennial tour just came out. Land and Sea just came out. Those are three new programs.

We have dates people can book into through next summer. Our license is good, that’s big news. A lot of tour operators are in the process of renewing theirs and they can’t take bookings. So that’s pretty exciting.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in the country. Fall is a great time to go to Cuba. The weather is perfect. Hurricanes are rarely a problem. I go every fall and I love it. It’s great.

New Year’s will be a big celebration again. I think most dates are sold out for New Year’s. I think we have a couple of spots left. The food scene is still growing and improving. There are more paradors than ever before and they are really coming on, coming into their own, different types of cuisine, more accessible.

TravelPulse: The paradors are privately owned, right?

Popper: Right. Every one of them. There’s just change. I go every couple of months and every time I go it feels different. You go to the airport and you see Cubans. The lines are longer at airport. More Cubans are leaving. They’re dressed nicer. Change is afoot, as they say. You see it every time you go.

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