CUBA: Coming with a rush

Band playing traditional music in Old Havana

Like the objects in your car’s rear-view mirror, unfettered American travel to Cuba may be closer than it appears.

Despite the formal resumption of relations last week between the United States and Cuba — and the easing of US travel restrictions to the island even before that — the US trade embargo that has hampered the ability of Americans to visit Cuba for more than half a century remains in place.

Further, political conservatives have promised an uncompromising fight to keep it in place.

However, within both government and the US travel industry, events are moving so fast now that the embargo may become a non-factor, and sooner than anyone expected.

First came reports in mainstream media that President Barack Obama plans to use his executive authority to unilaterally make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba in two crucial ways.

For the first time since the embargo was implemented in 1961, Americans would be free to visit Cuba as individuals instead of being required to join tour groups.

And talks are already underway between US and Cuban aviation officials to allow regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries, something that currently happens now only on a limited basis between Havana and Miami.

Meanwhile, word comes now that American Airlines that it will begin offering charter flights to Havana from Los Angeles as early as December.

For West Coast travelers with a desire to visit Cuba, this is huge. Never mind no longer having to slip into Cuba illegally after first flying all the way to Toronto, Mexico City or Cancun. Now, you no longer have to fly first to Miami.

From here, it looks very much as if the rush to bring full-on mass-market US tourism to Cuba — and yes, it definitely is a rush — is building up the force and velocity of a tidal wave, an avalanche, a hurricane. Spinning. Roaring. Irresistible.

If you’re one of those Americans who’s been dreaming for years or even decades of being able to freely visit this fascinating country and its people, get your passport ready. It looks as if it’s going to happen, and maybe a lot sooner than anyone expected.

Greg Gross is the publisher/senior editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and owner of the Trips by Greg LLC travel agency.

Save your trip from smog

Smoggy rider cropped

A customized itinerary can do a lot more than make you feel pampered when you travel. It also can safeguard your health.

When you set out to see the world, family, friends and travel writers are quick to warn you about the hazards. Strange foods. Overpriced tourist traps. Maniacal taxi drivers. Pickpockets and con artists.

The air?

In some of the world’s most famed and fascinating urban destinations, breathing truly can be hazardous to your health.

I was talking with a new member of my Trips by Greg team about group tours to India for 2016. The challenge now, he said, would be to expose visitors to the country’s impressive sights — without exposing them to its horrendous smog.

Come on, I said. Delhi’s air pollution can’t be as bad as that of Beijing, can it? His reply:

“It’s worse.”

He’s right. The World Health Organization says the air in Delhi has the planet’s highest concentrations of PM2.5, ultra-fine particles too small for the eye to see, that can play havoc with your heart and lungs.

Spend enough time breathing this stuff and you won’t have to worry anymore about what smoking can do to you.

Too often around the world, the rush to industrialize overwhelms the ability — and even the will — of governments to rein in the polluters. But this problem isn’t limited to developing nations.

In Paris this spring, the smog was so bad that city officials ordered half the cars off the roads for a day and let people use public transit for free. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is now on a jihad to permanently ban diesel-powered cars by 2020.

In London, where auto exhaust fumes regularly enter into an unholy alliance with dust all the way from the Sahara, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in the air are the highest in Europe — and higher than Beijing, which is famous for it.

What’s a health-conscious traveler to do?

This is where bespoke travel enters the picture.

Simply put, bespoke travel is any travel with a customized itinerary, one tailored to the needs and wishes of a specific client. The word itself comes from the tailor’s shop: It means made-to-order.

It’s usually associated with luxury travel and upscale travelers. Typically, it’s also a bit more expensive than pre-planned “canned” tours. But if you’re trying to see the world — without having to deal with ugly, unhealthful air — made-to-order travel is just what you should be looking for.

A savvy tour operator or travel agent can build an individualized itinerary that can expose you to the sights, the local culture, the local flavor, while keeping your exposure to the hazards of environmental pollution to a minimum.

One result is that you may not spend nearly as much time in the big cities. You may find yourself instead out in the suburbs or the countryside, far enough from the choking industrial skies, but deep in the heart of the country you can to see and the people you came to meet.

This often has the fringe benefit of placing you in some of the most beautiful settings on Earth.

Bespoke travel can do that for you. Not every tour operator can, however. You need one with expert local knowledge who also is willing to go the extra mile on behalf of a client.

Or you need a travel agent who knows where and how to find one.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of Trips by Greg travel agency.

AIRLINES: Fall fares falling?

There are forecasts for (slightly) lower airfares this coming fall. I’ll believe it when I see it. But be ready to book, anyway.

One of the writers in the travel industry for whom I have a lot of respect is consumer affairs expert Christopher Elliott. So when Chris says airfares could reach record lows this fall, I pay attention.

Knowing the airlines as we know them, I may be more than a little skeptical about that, but I still pay attention. And you should, too.

The factors behind his forecast are reasonable enough.

First, there’s the usual post-summer falloff in passenger traffic, what travel agents call the “shoulder season” — after Labor Day and before Thanksgiving. Families have wrapped up their summer vacations and the kids are back in school.

Then, there’s the matter of fuel. For once, it’s cheaper. With crude oil prices low and getting lower, the cost of jet fuel has been steadily dropping for the last couple of years.

With jet engines being the inherent gas guzzlers that they are, and airlines steadily replacing older aircraft with newer models sporting more fuel-efficient engines, that’s big.

To those points, now add the one that no one saw coming — a suspicious US Justice Department.

DOJ is investigating the possibility that airlines have colluded to take planes out of service to reduce the total number of available seats — and this artificially keep airfares higher.

Airlines taking older aircraft out of service has been a common occurrence over the last few years. but to the consumer, it just looked as if this was a step being taken by each airline to cut operating costs and keep fares where they are.

Apparently, someone at Justice thinks there’s more to it, specifically that airlines may have quietly conspired to send perfectly good airplanes to the “boneyard” to drive up prices.

Clearly, this is not the time to annoy Washington with higher shoulder-season fares.

So Chris definitely has logic and reason on his side in predicting a drop in airfares this fall.

Why then would IBIT be skeptical?

The airfares we’re talking about here are not total fares, only base fares, the bare minimum you can possibly pay for a flight.

And you already know that US airlines have spent the last five years piling on special fees to all but guarantee that you have to pay more than that.

The airlines made more than $3.5 billion last year in add-on fees alone. If they were serious about lowering your travel costs, they’d be reducing the cost of their add-on fees or even abolishing some of them.

Donald Trump has a better chance of being invited down to Mexico by Chapo Guzman for dinner and drinks.

The airlines will tell you, with some validity, that their expenses and overhead are such that they actually make very little in the way of a profit per flight — and that’s presuming the plane is full.

All of which leads me to believe that expected drop in fall airfares isn’t going to amount to very much in the end.

Still, if your schedule permits shoulder-season travel and Chris Elliott’s predicted price drop happens as expected, you might want to keep your credit card handy.

If you haven’t already done so, you also might want to register on an air travel Web site that will send you email or text message alerts when airfares to your chosen destination reaches a certain price. Three of the better ones are Kayak, Yapta and Airfarewatchdog.

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.

CUBA: The ferries are coming

A Balearia ocean-going ferry operating in the Mediterranean.

Carnival is the first US-based cruise line to win approval to sail to Havana, but any one of several sea-going ferries may beat them to the island. The race is on.

Four years ago, I told you that “lifting the US trade embargo against Cuba would open up a whole new class of cruise travel for Americans — ocean-going ferries. The possibilities are mind-blowing.”

Let the mind-blowing begin.

I was about to blog the announcement that United Caribbean Lines planned to start operating cruise ferries between Miami and Havana as early as this coming fall when I found out that they’re just the latest of a string of ferry operators setting sail from Cuba.

As of this writing, Baja Ferries USA, Havana Ferry Partners, CubaKat and Balearia all have preceded United Caribbean in seeking permission to run ferries between Florida and Cuba.

As today’s generation likes to say: It’s on.

Baja Ferries USA is the US subsidiary of the Mexican company that operates ferries between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland. Balearia is a Spanish shipping firm that already runs ferries between the Spanish mainland the islands in the Mediterranean, as well as between Florida and the Bahamas.
The rest are American start-ups that have yet to put a hull in the water.

Interestingly, while Washington seems to be issuing US-Cuba ferry licenses as fast as they can be printed, it’s the Cuban government that seems to be in no hurry to do the same.

I don’t know if this is a political ploy by Havana or if the Cuban bureaucracy was just caught unprepared for an avalanche of license requests. Either way, the expectation on our side of the Florida Straits is that the go-ahead is coming, and coming soon.

This time next year, if not sooner, travelers may be arriving in Havana harbor in rows of comfortably reclining seats not unlike those of airliners — except that the ferry seats will probably be wider and have a lot more legroom.

For those looking for both comfort and privacy, the larger ferries will come with cabins, available for a surcharge.

Some of the ferry companies plan to use traditional V-hull ocean-going ferries, large enough to carry not only hundreds of passengers, but cars and even 18-wheelers.

Others are talking of making the daily run using high-speed catamarans featuring thin, narrow, wave-piercing twin hulls that permit vessels weighing thousands of tons to cross long stretches of ocean at ludicrous speeds.

At the very least, this means that Americans wanting to visit Cuba will have two cruise options — the full-blown resort-at-sea cruise ship experience with multiple port calls, and the quicker, more direct ferry cruise, with only one destination and fewer frills.

Please note that when it comes to the ferries, I said fewer frills, not none. The larger conventional ferries are likely to feature many of the amenities found on regular cruise ships — bars and restaurants, shopping, even swimming pools and casinos.

And at least one of them is likely to be calling on Havana before Carnival’s new fathom cruise line arrives next year, even though Carnival got Cuba’s go-ahead first.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

CRUISE: Carnival to Cuba

Havana harbor at sunset.
Havana harbor at sunset.

Washington gives approval to the world’s largest cruise line to begin sailings between Miami and Havana.

Well, that didn’t take long, did it?

It’s being announced today that the US Treasury and Commerce departments have given Carnival Cruise Lines the go-ahead to begin travel to Cuba, starting in May 2016.

There’s no comment so far, official or otherwise, from the Cuban government. Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party central committee, makes no mention of it. But there’s no way that either Carnival or Washington would go public without already having Havana’s blessing in their back pockets.

This deal is done.

You can read the press release here.

The ink has barely dried on last week’s formal reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba, so you know this has been in the works for a while, behind the scenes.

It all ties in with the launch of Carnival’s newest line, fathom, the voluntourism cruise experience we told you about last month.

For Cuba, this makes sense in ways beyond the obvious.

By opening up to US cruise lines with one of Carnival’s smaller ships, they can treat this as a warm-up — a “soft opening,” as they say in business circles — to prepare for the day when more and larger cruise ships start calling on Havana harbor.

And we know those days are coming.

The Caribbean cruise market is perhaps the most ferociously competitive in the world. Its two biggest competitors by far are Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Both have known for years that this day was coming — and although neither side would say so publicly — both have spent years quietly preparing for it.

There’s a certain swag that comes with being first, so Round One definitely goes to Carnival, but this is not over. You can’t tell me that Royal Caribbean spent the last several years building the largest cruise ships afloat, their Oasis class, without having Cuba as part of their thinking.

Carnival may be first, but you can bet your rent money that the competition won’t be far behind. The rush is coming.

Meanwhile, for those of you wanting to get a glimpse of Cuba before mass-market tourism from the States engulfs the island and forever changes the place, you might want to think about moving up your plans a bit.

Either way…got passport?

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.

CRUISE: Voluntourism goes to sea

cruise cruise Adonia
Adonia, flagship of the new fathom cruise line from Carnival.

Carnival launches a boutique cruise line that combines an ocean vacation with cultural immersion and volunteer work for its passengers.

Cruise lines face quandary. Their need for younger travelers is colliding with people’s craving for a more authentic, hands-on travel experience, the kind you don’t get lounging around shipboard bars and sun decks, or crammed into a bus on “canned” sightseeing tours.

For better or worse, that’s the image a lot of millennials — and some older travelers, too — have of cruise vacations. And it doesn’t make them reach for their passports.

Houston — or in this case, Doral, FL, home of industry giant Carnival Cruise Lines — we have a problem.

Various lines are trying varying approaches to attack this. Royal Caribbean is building enormous mega-ships packed with enough onboard amusements to make Las Vegas and Disneyworld equally nervous.

Some, like Oceania, Seabourn and Crystal, are going all-in on all-out luxury, doing their best to replicate 5-star living at sea. Others, like Holland America Line, are making a point to offer shipboard cooking classes and other learning experiences designed to keep passengers engaged instead of amused.

Comes now Carnival with something completely different: fathom — deliberately lower-case, but not necessarily lower key.

And definitely not what one normally associates with the Mickey D’s of cruise lines.

In reality, Carnival is the 800-pound gorilla of the cruise industry, owner of eight different cruise lines in addition to the Carnival flagship brand, each with its own character and personality.

Some of these names you already know — and on some cases, may have already sailed on:

  • AIDA Cruises
  • Costa
  • Cunard
  • Holland America
  • P&O
  • P&O Australia
  • Princess
  • Seabourn

Just this month, Carnival had added a ninth, fathom, which will be sailing the Caribbean out of Miami with a single ship, the Adonia.

In all, Adonia has space for just over 700 passengers, about the size of the original Love Boat.

By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas can accommodate more people than that on one deck.

But by far the biggest different between fathom and a conventional Caribbean cruise may be what happens when you get ashore.

fathom is offering passengers a chance to do work as volunteers for a week in the Dominican Republic. They’re calling this “impact travel:”

“Impact travel with fathom provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded travelers, become immersed in another culture, and work alongside its people to create enduring social impact.

“As a fathom™ traveler, you’ll work alongside established impact partners with strong community connections in the northern Dominican Republic. You’ll work alongside the people of those communities, immersing yourself in their culture, harnessing the power of that human connection to make relevant, lasting contributions.”

Passengers will choose from among three fields in they can volunteer in the DR:

  • Environmental
    Making and distributing clay water filters to communities without safe drinking water, or working on reforesting projects.
  • Education
    Tutoring students in English classes.
  • Economic Development
    Working with two women’s cooperatives, one that cultivates organic cacao plants for the production of chocolate, while the other creates marketable arts and crafts from recycled paper.

“…you’ll come home seven days later knowing that, for the people whose lives you’ve just touched, the world has become a little brighter because of you.”

Voluntourism is going to sea. Even their URL is not the customary .com site. It’s an .org.

It’s not all sweat and service. In between the volunteer work will be time spent on pristine beaches, in restaurants, clubs and shops.

Voluntourism itself is hardly new, and as you’ll see from the link in this paragraph, not without controversy. What’s new here is to have a mass-market cruise line offering passengers the chance to get involved in it. In that sense, the cruise industry truly is sailing into uncharted waters.

If it resonates with younger or socially conscious travelers, however, Carnival just might have found a way to give cruise travel a more positive image — and just maybe get more and younger travelers to go to sea.

On a fathom cruise, then, you’re going to get dirty. You’re going to get sweaty. You may even get tired. You’re also going to meet Dominicans, get to know some of them by name, get a taste of what their lives are like.

In short, you’re going to come away with a feeling for a culture you never would’ve got from the inside of that tour bus.

fathom begins operations in April 2016.

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.

"Wherever you go, go with all your heart." — Confucius