Cuba Travel Network | against all odds
A lot can happen in a decade, both in politics and business. During my initial visit to Cuba, Tour & Marketing was flying high, its staff a picture of happiness and success. After talking with Elba Castillo, their sales manager and Eddie Lubbers hotel sales manager, about the company’s internet travel business, I recall wandering around the Marina Hemingway complex where the company was located and seeing the damage caused by hurricane Isidore earlier that year.
But, as if the sights of hurricane disaster had been a premonition, this humble company would later appear on the radar of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and, like something from the cold war era, Tour & Marketing quickly found itself in hot water as domain names like its insignia GoCubaPlus.com and 50+ others were seized by an ICANN controlled US domain registry, together with bank accounts in Canada closed through pressure from the Bush administration.
The staffs reaction to the debacle was swift however, and born from adversity came Cuba Travel Network, now with an alliance with New York based Fastbooking Inc. Drawing from past experience, the progress was rapid; signing deals with the Cuban Government telecommunications company Etecsa to sell Cuban hotels on sites like Cuba.cu and cubatravel.cu
Fast forward almost a decade, with our US policy towards Cuba now under Obama´s command, the situation couldn´t be more contrasting. US travel companies like insightcuba and, over 100 more, have applied and received licenses to promote travel to Cuba under the auspices of “Cuba people-to-people” trips, where the administration condones visits to the forbidden island under strict guidelines. However, tourism based trips are prohibited and this is where companies like Cuba Travel Network once again appear to have the edge over their OFAC licensed counterparts.
The prevalence of social media over the past decade has not only brought about sweeping changes in the Arab world but, also in Cuba. Even though 10 years on, Cuban bloggers like Yoani Sánchez are still heavily restricted from accessing the internet, US social media websites are becoming the bedrock for Cuban based operations like Cuba Travel Network to garner tourism interest to the island nation. In an unlikely twist of social media use, the company was the first to receive approval from Mark Zuckerberg´s Facebook to promote and sell Cuban hotels through an approved app on the social media giant’s platform. As a result, for the first time in history, the company gets sales of Cuban travel services on both Cuban government websites like cuba.cu, together with US owned websites. But the synergy doesn´t stop there, booking Cuban hotels on Newton, Massachusetts based Tripadvisor also leads to Fastbooking & Cuba Travel Network. Yes, a decade after OFAC´s action against Tour & Marketing, the old maxim “Out of Disaster Comes Opportunity” would appear to definitely apply.
With John Kerry as secretary of state and, Obama´s recent relaxation and “blind eye” approach concerning Travel to Cuba by Americans, one can only deduce that OFAC action is winding down, in anticipation of a total relaxation of Travel to Cuba. Big names like Priceline.com and Travelocity.com, who themselves, around the same time as Tour & Marketing, were fined by OFAC for selling trips to Cuba during the Bush era, are probably looking on envious of Cuba Travel Network´s achievements over the past decade.
Consequently, keeping the Cuba Travel flag flying has not been uneventful but, the inevitable avalanche of U.S operators, poised and ready for the green light from the US administration, could garner even more interest in the now decade old Cuba Travel Network´s accomplishments.
Against all odds, it seems that not all US intervention has a bad ending