Your group at Cultural Island Travel is based in New York correct?
Yep, we're out of New York. We have three outside sales agents one out of New Jersey, one out of West Virginia and one out of Washington State. So we pretty much cover anyone out of the U.S. that wants to go to Cuba. Sometimes we offer travel to other countries too, but generally serve U.S. travelers that need help with all the documentation, visas and we go with the people we know down there in Cuba as the primary destination we focus on.
Basically, my background started when I went to Cuba on a semester at sea. It was on a ship that goes around the world as a study abroad program. And luckily we were the first to go to Cuba, we were one of the first big groups of student to go…and I loved it so much. We were there only three days-but I ended up going back and stayed for 10 days really getting into the dance, the music and the culture. There was so much amazing music. I ended up going back over and over and over again just for me. It wasn’t even a business idea back then I just loved the place.
I kept going back and started working with some musicians there who ended up going to the U.S. and didn’t know what to do with themselves-because marketing here for your career was very different than in Cuba. In Cuba when you are a well known musician the government kind of helps you out with getting on the radio, help with setting up tours, etc. Well, when you arrive here nobody knows you. It’s much more difficult and in particular with the trade embargoes we have. So it’s kind of an uphill battle and I just wanted to help them out. I made websites, got press for them and we did a bunch of gigs and now some of them are doing really really well. One was nominated for a grammy award a couple of years ago-when he put together this 50’s like big band ensemble and they were doing really great at least until Covid hit and now we can’t really do anything.
But that was really fun and kind of led me to promote 'Inside Cuba' one of the travel companies based out there. They asked me to put together a promotional CD of Cuban music to help familiarize people with the music of Cuba and I did that with my artists and ended up working with them as a tour leader. I was like their American person taking their clients down to Cuba-making sure they were ok, making sure all their needs were met and then I decided to apply for my own license-because back then you needed a license to do travel to Cuba. I did the whole licensing process-which took over a year-through the U.S. Treasury Department. This helped me understand the whole gripe with the embargo is about where you spend your money while there. Back then you had to do a whole lot of paperwork and that was around 2014. And it took a year with lawyers and paperwork to get the license done.
My motivation for getting licensed mainly was because I wanted to do the tours my way. Inside Cuba was doing tours with like 24 people at a time on bus tours and going to restaurants that weren’t that great. And I really wanted to do a much smaller more intimate thing. What we do is stop our groups at about 7 or 8 people with an assigned tour leader. We can and will do big groups but that is if that is how they want to travel. But we are not going to take a solo traveler or a couple and put them on a bus with like 24 people-because it doesn’t really show them the Cuba how I want to show them.
Some of the things we do-to give you an idea and this also goes hand in hand with legal issues; the big one is that you’re spending money with the Cuban people and not with the government.
So let’s say I take my group to the home of an award winning Jazz Musician’s house-he’ll do a concert in his house for them; he’ll talk to them about his life, touring, schools he went to in Cuba, his preparation and all that; and then we pay that musician directly-with no association or connection to the Cuban government. (This qualifies in the legal sense operating within the guidelines established by the U.S. Government-travel to Cuba.)
Even if the laws were to change-and the restrictions were relaxed we’d still do the tours this way. Because our clients come back saying “wow-we would have never had that experience” if not for the way we organize our tours. We have young energetic guides who take our groups out all day and show them all these amazing people in the arts, dance and architecture. There’s even a guy that I really like to take our people to-who takes all those old American cars and restores them; the cars would be in terrible shape and he completely turns them around. It’s really unbelievable what he does, and along with that he will talk to them about his life’s story; how he got started restoring cars-with no access to OEM parts-just parts he’s been able to make on his own. These artists are really geniuses.
There are a lot of things we do like that-very intimate. We can do this for very small groups of 3 or 4, up to very large corporate groups of up to 60. We did Mick Jagger's personal trip before he did the Rolling Stones concert down there. So we’ve done it all.
Wasn’t there like an impromptu or pop up electronica music festival held there?
Yes there was (the Mañana Festival). There’s definitely music festivals held there and the Cuban music is just amazing. Besides the Bueno Vista Social Club documentary, people don’t know a lot about-it’s a treasure trove of music there. When I go down there sometimes I have a problem choosing which performances to attend because there is so much going on.
How has the pandemic impacted what you do?
Obviously right now they are closed due to Covid. There’s an emphasis placed on keeping the cases low and people safe until the pandemic has abated. They were actually supposed to open up August 1st but what they ended up doing was just opening up the Keys which is all beach resorts and only the Cubans who work there are allowed to go out there-and the general population has to be tested and then let in.
So we are waiting. And they are saying now maybe November 1st.
Having never been to Cuba-just my observation it seems incredibly hard to get into there to travel.
Not so much as long as you are doing it in a legal way. There are direct flights into the island from the U.S., you have New York, Miami, Atlanta and Boston. They had one direct from L.A., but I guess they didn’t get much business from it so that was discontinued. We’ll see how things work out after the pandemic. But they fought really hard to get these routes established and running-which mainly happened under Obama. He started to approve commercial flights there-before you had to go through Miami and then to Cuba on a charter and which was a disaster; you’d be lucky if there wasn’t a five hour delay or the flight get cancelled entirely. Before Obama it was really hard-but now it’s American Airlines, Southwest, Jet Blue and Delta. It’s completely different thing.
Will the current administration’s restriction impact flights once the Covid ban has been relaxed?
I hope not. It’s not right now. But if they come up with something else then we’ll have to deal with it. It’s something different every day with Cuba and with the press it makes it seem very hard to go. It creates this perception-that everybody has in the U.S.. Even my best friend who has known me and knows all about my business for the last six years-she called recently and asked what am I going to do now that the current administration wanted to cancel everything Obama did. Even though there were very few changes, the word cancel made everyone think-well that’s it you can’t go. Yet, it was on us to go out and promote it more, help explain the rules and even with that we have to consult with our lawyers who focus on only that-to understand what was does everything mean. We’re ready to deal with the challenges-what ever they are and look forward to a bright future post pandemic in 2021!