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Cuba on the roster

As operators announce plans for new itineraries featuring Cuba, how transformational could the island be as an addition to the Caribbean region and what efforts must operators make to steal a march on the competition? Roger Frizzel of Carnival and Richard Twyman of Azamara Club Cruises give their input on whether the recent hype is a sign of anything more substantial.

In March 2016, Carnival Corporation gained approval to sail a ship to Cuba, marking the first stop by a US cruise line for several decades. The announcement, which came during President Obama’s historic visit to the island, was emblematic of a wider change. As diplomatic relations between the two nations began to thaw, Cuba no longer seemed quite so out of bounds.

Under the US trade embargo, American tourists have been barred from visiting Cuba since 1963. While thousands have travelled there all the same, taking advantage of various exemptions, it wasn’t until very recently that the restrictions began to ease.

Carnival’s ship, MV Adonia, belonged to the new Fathom line. Because Fathom was set up for ‘social impact’ cruising, passengers were able to travel under the pretext of cultural exchange. Specifically, their visit counted as a ‘people-to-people’ trip, in which the activity schedule produces ‘meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba’.

The ship initially denied reservations to Cuban-born citizens, under a longstanding rule that prevented them from returning by sea. This rule, however, was lifted just in time for the inaugural voyage. When the vessel entered Havana Harbor on 2nd May, to tremendous fanfare, there were Cuban nationals on board.

Matching the competition

According to Carnival, the new destination came in response to significant pent-up demand. Bookings, in fact, were so robust that Fathom scrapped two sailings to the Dominican Republic to make room for extra trips to Cuba. Though Fathom itself will be discontinued in the spring, Carnival will visit the island with its other brands from June 2017.

“As the first U.S. cruise line to sail to Cuba in more than 40 years, we have been able to offer something unique and enriching to our guests,” says Carnival spokesperson Roger Frizzell. “Today, we are only sailing there on one small ship, but we have been very pleased with our first season of cruising, and look forward to the opportunities coming later this year.”

Although Carnival has courted the most headlines, it is not the only cruise company to offer trips to Cuba. The first Cuban itinerary, in fact, came as early as 2013, when Cypriot cruise line Celestyal sent a ship to circumnavigate the island. Today, Celestyal Crystal sails there all year round, offering two days in Havana alongside calls at Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Since then, many others have gained approval, and as the US restrictions relax, the numbers continue to grow. The early movers were predominantly smaller operators, including luxury French line Ponant and US-based Pearl Seas Cruises, but we have now reached a point where the major players have some serious skin in the game.

Take MSC Cruises, the first global cruise line to homeport in Havana. Two of its ships – MSC Opera and MSC Armonia – offer Caribbean itineraries that start and finish in Cuba. Then there’s Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCL), which offers sailings on all three of its brands (Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises).

“As a Cuban-American and founder of Oceania Cruises, I am incredibly proud that one of Oceania’s vessels will be our company’s first to sail to Cuba,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of NCL, on a release. “This is truly a dream come true for me and I cannot wait for our loyal guests to experience the sights and sounds of my hometown of Havana and get to know its rich culture and its warm and welcoming residents.”

So, other than the warmth of its residents, why has Cuba become such an on-trend destination? Really, the attraction is no mystery. For one, there is the element of forbidden fruit that came with the US embargo. Secondly, Cuba is renowned for being less Americanised than the other Caribbean islands. Given the trend towards experiential travel, in which authenticity is enshrined as the ultimate virtue, it makes sense that tourists would hanker after a place they deem ‘unspoiled’.

After all, Cuba is often spoken of as a place like no other on earth – devoid of advertising, commercial TV, private enterprise, and all the trappings of external influence. Many visitors have discussed wanting to go there before this changes.

“The number one reason people choose to cruise is destination, and Cuba becoming more accessible can only be good for tourists,” says Richard Twyman, managing director of UK and Ireland for Azamara Club Cruises. “You’ve got this incredible city in Havana, which is very vibrant and colorful, but has been trapped in the 1960s for a long period of time. Being able to see that makes it hugely of interest. Particularly in North America, there’s a large expat Cuban community who now have the ability to go there as well.”

Azamara, along with its parent company RCL Corporation, has had Cuba on its radar for a while. Its first visit to the island will take place in March, when the Azamara Quest embarks on a 13-day round trip from Miami. Sister brand Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, lays claim to the largest ship to sail to Cuba from the United States – the 1,602-passenger vessel Empress of the Seas, which will pay its first visit in April.

Creative cruising

As the market becomes more saturated, we are likely to see a range of creative attempts to steal a march on the competition. Twyman feels that the strength of the Cuban stopover (styled in Azamara’s marketing as Destination Immersion) will be the key factor in setting a cruise line apart.

“What Azamara does is stay overnight and that’s a core part of what we do as a brand,” he says. “It’s brilliant to be able to do that in Havana. Most cruise lines leave at 5 in the evening, so how great to be able to experience night time in Havana with all that music, food and culture that’s available to you.”

He points out, however, that operators are somewhat hamstrung in what they can provide.

“The ground infrastructure there is still operated by the government, so the diversity on offer at the moment is more limited than it is in other destinations,” he says. “So while Cuba has had quite a big impact for us, you need to be realistic about it. It’s a great new destination but we’ve got no plans to do just a Cuban itinerary at this point – it will remain a port of call in amongst other Caribbean itineraries and I think that will be the way many cruise lines address it.”

It may be that the burgeoning Cuban tourist industry can’t have it both ways – if it wants to retain the island’s untarnished nature, it will need to work within certain constraints. Cuba’s ageing ports are limited in numbers, with only three berths in Havana. English speakers are rare, the complex monetary system is apt to cause problems, and the ban on American travel (while no longer strictly enforced) has yet to be fully lifted. In addition, the recent change of government may have unforeseen effects, which for cruise lines could prove an extra spur to caution.

That said, if you’re one of the thousands of Americans who have booked a trip this spring, you are likely to be less concerned with what you can’t do and more concerned with what you can. If you pay a visit to Cuba, you get to feel like part of something historically significant, a feeling absent from your average vacation.

Something similar applies to operators, which have long been required to plot Caribbean itineraries that omit its largest island. The chance to visit Cuba means a roster of new possibilities.

“Cuba provides our brands – and the cruise industry – with an opportunity to refresh our Caribbean offerings for our guests. We continue to see strong demand, especially since cruising provides the greatest vacation value for travelers to Cuba,” says Carnival’s Frizzell.

Uncertain futures

Twynam feel that it’s hard to predict what the future holds for Cuba as a cruise destination. Only time will tell whether the island will remain an important port of call, or whether interest will naturally die down once Cuba falls off the news agenda. What is more, President Trump’s intentions regarding the Caribbean island remain uncertain – he has previously tweeted that “if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole”, he would terminate that deal.

“Obama put Cuba right in front of the news and it was natural that tourism would follow,” he says. “I’d like to see Cuba open up more and there be more opportunities to visit different parts of the island, but I think it’s just slowly, slowly on this one and who knows?”

This article appears in the 2017 vol 1 edition of World Cruise Industry Review

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