This will be their third season of Cuba operations. The people-to-people program qualifies with US Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations.
With Panorama II joining Panorama, Group IST is able to offer a vessel departing Havana to Cienfuegos and another Cienfuegos to Havana every Saturday. Sailings are from mid-December to early April.
'Sales are going very well. There is enormous interest in Cuba in general and Cuba cruises in particular,' said Naomi Kabak, svp, Group IST. 'This is coming from a very diversified pool of travelers with broad interests and a wide age range,' she added.
Cuba travel specialist Lee Lennon of Travel by Design in Miami, an affiliate of Sixth Star Travel, a Virtuoso agency, likes the Group IST program and plans to send clients. She said Panorama and Panorama II offer intimate cruise experiences and because of their size are able to call in most ports. Plus, 'their on-board and shoreside programs provide a culturally immersive people-to-people experience.'
The two itineraries vary slightly but give three days in Havana for a wealth of cultural and artistic exchanges such as meetings with musicians, dancers and artists, a presentation on sustainable urban agriculture and a cooking demonstration, and visits to a cigar factory and Ernest Hemingway's home.
At Cienfuegos, whose historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, passengers take a walking tour, visit artists, a farmer's market and a supermarket, and have lunch at a local restaurant accompanied by music and salsa lessons.
They meet a city historian and young women artists at picturesque Trinidad, known as Cuba's 'museum city,' and have the opportunity to explore the Museum of Architecture and the Romántico Museum, a former villa.
The Cayo Largo stop features learning about Cuba's medical system from doctors and nurses at a clinic, and a visit to a turtle breeding center/endangered species program. A call at Maria La Gorda affords interactions with teachers and students at a rural school and a tour of Guanahacabibes National Park, a large nature reserve with many archaeological sites.
Kabak noted Group IST has its own program manager in Cuba who oversees the operation and keeps the offerings current with the times. 'We are constantly enriching the program and involving more local experts and entrepreneurs,' she said.
New this season, a young musical trio will come aboard to introduce Cuban music and interact with passengers. A full-day tour, 'in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway,' has been incorporated with the visit to his Finca Vigia.
This is in addition to meetings with some new young artists. Group IST also has updated its programs in Maria La Gorda and Cayo Largo to allow time for swimming and snorkeling.
Prices start at $4,899 plus port taxes ($395) and visa ($75). Group IST's website shows a number of sold-out departures. The company has offices in New York City and Mansfield, Massachusetts.