PHOTO: Only a 40-minute plane ride from Miami, Cuba is another world.
Mayflower Tours has introduced a new Cuba program as part of the People to People program that allows Americans to travel to Cuba for educational purposes in spite of the ongoing U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.
Known primarily as a Chicago-based operator of escorted tours within North America, Mayflower has been building its international business in recent years and in 2014 has for the first time has done more international than domestic tour business.
For Mayflower’s fiscal 2014, ending October 31, the company is straddling the domestic-international line. “Mayflower for the first time in its history this year had more international business than domestic business,” said John Stachnik, Mayflower’s president. “In terms of numbers of people it’s still more domestic, but in terms of overall dollars, it’s more on the international side.”
Mayflower’s international business is driven by a long-time loyal clientele that likes traveling with the company and will wait to see where it travels internationally and then go with it.
Mayflower’s program lasts nine days and includes visits to Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Under the strict rules of People to People tourism enforced by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the trips are tightly regulated so that each day must include a certain number of educational encounters, such as meetings with local people in various occupations, such as students, artists, dancers, restaurant managers and so forth.
Fortunately what qualifies as People to People encounters for the U.S. government restrictions includes a wide range of types of experiences and encounters, and though they may technically be “educational,” none of them are boring.
Mayflower’s price for the nine-day program is $4,199 per person. And given the restricted nature of People to People travel, it’s pretty much all-inclusive.
“It’s such a sad thing to have a six-decade old embargo,” said Stachnik. “We don’t embargo Russia, we do a little bit but not a full-blown thing and that will be off in about three weeks the way things are going there. We don’t embargo China or Myanmar, all these other places, Libya. If you search into the embargo of Cuba it’s for human rights violations. Well, come on, compared to what some of our quote-unquote friends around the world do, it’s just a shame.
“This Cuba program is for first movers,” said Stachnik. “It’s an itinerary that is probably a throwback to the ‘60s and ‘70s, the way touring was done 40 or 45 years ago. It’s organized. There’s not a lot of room for wandering off on your own. If you say, ‘I want to hang around by the pool today,’ People to People touring says, ‘You can’t do that. You came here for a learning experience, you have to learn and document your learning experiences.’ So we’re talking to a different kind of traveler with this.”
Mayflower is going to rely heavily on travel agents to penetrate the market and help consumers understand how this trip differs from what they are used to.
“We’re going after the trade, heavy with the travel agents because they can talk to the uninformed traveler and make them understand that it is a different kind of travel experience,” said Stachnik. “But if they want to see it and be a first mover, let’s face it, if they want to go to a cocktail party and say, ‘I just got back from Cuba and…’ tell about their experiences. That’s the reality of travel. People want to do that.”
Like other operators to Cuba, Mayflower is likely to blow out its capacity in short order.
“We could only find space for seven departures,” said Stachnik. “And the departures are limited to 25 or 30 people because... some of the hotels are only 17 rooms and some of the things we do, such as the paladars, the home restaurants, you can’t turn up with 50 people. You’re running a smaller group, which is great for the people, though it limits us. For the first go-round we have seven departures for February, March, April and May. We can’t promote fall because our license has to be renewed in the summer and you can’t advertise tours you don’t have a license for.”