When Kath Bateman first set up Caledonia Worldwide in her spare bedroom twenty years ago, little did she know that it would develop into a specialist cultural tour operator with Cuba as its main focus. In the early days, Caledonia Languages Abroad (as is was then called) was a languages travel company, organising language and cultural courses in Europe for a mainly British market. Kath’s own background has undoubtedly influenced the direction of the business, and as a modern language graduate with a keen interest in dance, music and world cultures, and with very itchy feet, setting up a specialist travel company that brought together all these strands was a dream come true.
The first exploratory visit to Cuba was in 1997, to explore the opportunities for promoting Spanish language courses on the island, but it soon became clear that the unique and joyful cultural heritage of Cuba would be the foundation of Caledonia’s itineraries. In the early days of Caledonia working in Cuba, there was no email, no mobile phones and no internet and in order to develop business contacts and professional relationships, Kath travelled frequently to Cuba. Those early steps have served the company well and many of the original Cuban partners are to this day key service providers for the company. Caledonia now offers its own group dance and music holidays five times a year and customised itineraries for individuals and groups, all year round. Activities can include Spanish language tuition, salsa lessons, music classes, hiking in national parks, cookery classes and guided cultural tours around the island.
One of the key features of Caledonia holidays in Cuba is the opportunity to meet local people and to have hands-on cultural experiences. Accommodation is provided in local homestays – Cuban homes which have been licensed to rent rooms and provide meals to tourists – and the excellent home cooking and comfortable, safe accommodation provides daily contact with Cuban people of all backgrounds. Caledonia also makes sure that all locally engaged tutors and guides are paid over and above the normal industry rates, and that Cuban colleagues are treated as fairly as possible. E.g. they ensure that dance tutors who are working both mornings and afternoons have a good meal at lunchtime, or that guides frequently accompanying clients in one of the national parks are properly kitted out. Caledonia also regularly donates items such as dancewear or other clothing and encourage their clients to do so too.
To mark Caledonia’s 15th anniversary in Santiago de Cuba, the second city of the island and the hub of traditional Cuban dance and music, the Cuban National Arts Council organised a homage to Caledonia Worldwide in 2013 in the form of a gala dance performance, bringing together the top five dance companies in Santiago de Cuba under one roof for the first time ever. Kath was interviewed on local and national radio, appeared on national Cuban television on the weekly arts programme (kind of equivalent to the One Show), and also featured in most of the national newspapers. The celebrations focussed on the history of Caledonia in Santiago de Cuba and its collaborative work in promoting cultural tourism.
Next year (2018) Caledonia Worldwide will be celebrating 20 years in Cuba, so expect something really big!