Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cuba tourism boom has operators scrambling for guides

Cuba tourism boom has operators scrambling for guides
By Gay Nagle Myers / August 18, 2015

HAVANA — It was mid-May, and independent tour consultant Frank Slater
found himself leading his 22nd tour of Cuba, guiding a group at Vinca La
Figia, Ernest Hemingway's home from 1939 to 1960 in the village of San
Francisco de Paula, about 9 miles outside Havana. Now a museum, it is a
popular tourist stop for most visitors to Cuba.
Slater was serving as tour director on Friendly Planet's nine-day
people-to-people "Colors of Cuba" itinerary, similar to the company's
popular "Discover Havana" but a few days longer, with more stops.
Although Slater consults for multiple tour operators, this was his
second Cuba tour in May with Friendly Planet, with two more slated for
June. His travels in 22 years have taken him to 90 countries, and Cuba
has become a favorite. He recently calculated that in the previous 30
months, "one out of every six days of my life has been in Cuba. I love
it here. … I take photos on every trip, and I always see something new."
Over his almost three years visiting the island, he has seen the Cuban
market grow to the point that qualified tour guides are getting much
harder to find. As more tour companies come onboard, he said, they are
"driving up the need for more certified tour directors to accompany
these tours, plus the additional need for Cuban professional guides."
The most recent entrants in the crowded field of companies offering
people-to-people programs include Central Holidays and Apple Vacations.

What has prepared Slater for his work in Cuba are his experiences from
20-plus years of working both as a tour guide (a local expert who leads
groups around his or her own city or state) and as a tour director (an
expert who accompanies groups from start to finish from city to city,
state to state and country to country, working with tour operators).
From September to June, months when he generally is not traveling the
world, he divides his time between his grandkids in Denver and serving
as CEO of the Denver-based International Guide Academy (IGA), of which
his son, Daniel, is president.
In business since 1973, the IGA has certified hundreds of guides and
tour directors for placement with numerous tour operators whose
itineraries span the globe.
The pace of travel to Cuba has accelerated since December, when
President Obama loosened travel restrictions. That pace can be seen in
visitor numbers, which in June alone topped 218,000, a 20.6% increase
over June 2014, according to Cuba's National Office of Statistics and
While the figures did not include a breakdown of U.S. visitors, the year
is shaping up to be a record-breaker and is expected to top the record 3
million visitors last year.
"What has prepared me for work in Cuba is my knowledge of managing tours
over the years," Slater said. "I prepared for my tours in Cuba with
extensive reading, website research and watching videos about Cuba to
learn about the history, culture, food, geography, political situations
and the like. This is what all tour managers should do when assigned a
new location."
U.S. tour operators generally contract with a Cuban tour company for the
services of a local guide who accompanies the tour director and the
group. Slater said one of the Cuban companies is San Cristobal, a
government-run travel agency whose guides specialize in Old Havana and
are particularly knowledgeable regarding the restorations and rebuilding
projects in the old city.

"San Cristobal's guides are great," Slater said. "They all have gone
through an extensive training program with their company for all of
Cuba, not just Havana."
What Slater looks for in a Cuban guide is "good teamwork, friendly,
flexible and supportive of each other, and this has been the case with
all the San Cristobal guides with whom I've worked."
He said, "Our curriculum does change over the years in order to keep up
to date with the changing demographics of travelers. About 20% of our
instructors have worked in Cuba, so many of the examples in our training
courses and classes are about activity and tours in Cuba."
To meet growing demand, the IGA has added certification programs this
year and will add still more in 2016.
"Additional classes and locations where our courses are taught have been
added due to the increased demand from people looking to work as tour
directors," Slater said. "While a few have Cuba on their horizon as a
place to work, their entry into the industry is not based solely on Cuba."
Tour directors don't teach the destination, he said, but they do help
transition passengers from culture to culture on a multi-country trip.
"Most people are disposed to have a good time, to learn and take in new
experiences," Slater said. "The Cuba traveler in particular is
well-educated, well-traveled and knows the guidelines, follows the rules
and is eager to see everything."
While travel to Cuba has been evolving quickly, Slater said he feels
that other changes will come slowly.
"I suspect it will be a longer time than most think before all the
restrictions are lifted," he said. "Once lifted, I expect to see U.S.
investments in Cuba, but I believe it will be over years."
As the embargo is lifted, he said, "I believe that the Cuban people will
see positive improvements in access to medicines, foods, the Internet,
goods and services, which are now affected by the embargo."
Several tour operators said they are seeing a shortage of tour guides in
Cuba, "let alone good tour guides," in the words of Ronen Paldi,
president of Ya'lla Tours USA.
"At Ya'lla, we have a pool of excellent guides, between eight and 10 of
them, all young, dynamic and very dedicated, and we have never
experienced that shortage," Paldi said. "In peak season, when other
companies were subjected to Spanish-speaking guides with an English
translator, we kept running our operation with our guides both for
groups and FITs, as we do all the time."

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, agreed that shortages of Cuban
tour guides, "especially high-quality guides," are real.
"There also is a shortage of tour leaders who accompany the groups," he
said. "Both shortages are due to the increased demand from groups and
new entrants into the marketplace."
Insight Cuba's longtime presence, said Popper, "gives us a leg up
regarding access to the best resources, including restaurant
reservations, hotel rooms, Cuban tour guides and U.S. tour leaders. We
fortunately are not experiencing any shortages."
Popper said that Cubans value established relationships with individuals
and companies and provide the necessary resources to those companies
first. Moreover, he said, the country's leaders understand the burden
that the increased demand has placed on the tourism infrastructure.
"Cuba is adapting, but training new guides and finding seasoned guides
takes time," he said. "They also need to experience leading groups of
Americans so they can better understand the preferences of the American
Friendly Planet launched its people-to-people programs to Cuba in 2011,
and since then, "we've become experts at building relationships within
the destination, from securing the best accommodations to sourcing local
cultural experiences and activities," said President Peggy Goldman.

These relationships have also enabled the company to work with
well-informed tour directors and guides.
"We've not had any shortage of experts to lead our programs in Cuba, but
I expect that newer entries to the market may face challenges due to
increased competition," Goldman said. "Many of our directors and guides
come to us through referrals from existing tourism entities in Cuba as
well as our association with the International Guide Academy."
When Tauck launched its Cuba programs in 2012, the company used tour
directors (or Tauck directors) already on staff who were fluent in Spanish.
"We've had no issues in sourcing local guides," said Katharine Bonner,
senior vice president. "There is a strong supply in Cuba who speak
excellent English, and large numbers have university degrees in American
She pointed out that being a local guide for American groups is a
sought-after job in Cuba, as local guides can make more money than many
other Cubans.

Source: Cuba tourism boom has operators scrambling for guides: Travel
Weekly -

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