'The ship can't get there, but the guests can experience the destination,' Lee Lennon, principal designer, Travel by Design, told Seatrade Insider.
Working with an experienced Miami-based Cuba travel company, Lennon customized such a program in 2012 for residents of The World, in the form of an overland journey focusing on the arts.
'It was a wonderful cultural exchange, and the residents loved the program. I have been interested in travel to Cuba ever since,' she said.
In the autumn Lennon went to Havana on an arts cultural exchange with a Latin ballet company from New York. 'I fell in love with Cuba,' she said. 'It is indeed time to travel to this fascinating destination. It is culturally rich and a feast for the senses ... truly enriching and authentic.'
Lennon marvels that Cuba has nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites—from Old Havana to the historic center of Camagüey. She extols the island's 'exploding' arts scene, its architectural richness and its 'incredibly pristine' coral reefs.
Lennon is now selling Cuba programs through Travel by Design and has a group participating in the 12th Havana Biennial in May.
She works in partnership with Miami-based Destination Management Consultants, with more than 15 years of Cuba travel experience including educational and alumni associations, university groups and professional research, humanitarian and religious organizations. DMC also focuses on the arts, Lennon said, and has access to some of Cuba's most talented artists.
'We provide authentic people to people experiences. It's a cultural exchange,' she said.
Lennon has 25 years of experience in the cruise industry. She most recently directed destination and enrichment programs for The World, and previously was director of destination services for Seabourn. Earlier she managed shore excursions for Silversea Cruises and served as Abercrombie & Kent project manager for The World. Prior roles were with American Classic Voyages, Cunard, Royal Viking Line and Norwegian Cruise Line.
In 2011, Lennon created Travel by Design, a consultancy that she recently expanded into a full-time business.
She's now talking with upscale lines about Cuba pre-/post-cruise or overland cultural programs for small groups within established US guidelines, and several are interested. The groups could fly to the island from Miami prior to their sailing. The cultural focus could be extended to meet Cuban artists in Miami and tour Little Havana.
For cruise lines, 'We take care of all the details,' Lennon said, adding that although it is getting easier to book this type of travel thanks to the recent US-Cuba policy changes, it is still complex.
'With my understanding of the cruise industry and its clientele, along with DMC's long-standing connections to the people and places within Cuba, this is a win-win,' as she put it. 'It is truly an exciting as well as historical time to travel there, and we are able to provide cruise guests with an experience.'