“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is the Captain speaking. Having departed Florida last night, we are now on our approach to the entrance of Havana harbor. For those of you on the open decks, look to our left and see the two imposing fortresses standing guard to greet us. On the right of the channel, the tour buses are lining up along the malecón, and the morning sun blankets the skyline of the Caribbean’s largest city.”
Imagine a cruise to Cuba and what it would be like. Don’t be ridiculous. Cruises ended when overnight ferry service from Tampa dropped off the earth in 1958. Since then, the cruise industry has all but avoided Cuba. The time to hear that morning announcement on an American brand cruise ship is closer than you may think. Strides are being made (and comments may surprise you).
Even now, there are cruise companies which offer itineraries that include the island nation. Spain’s Quail Travel Group, operating under the name Happy Cruises, publicizes seasonal seven-day voyages departing Havana aboard the 900-passnger, 20-year-old MS Gemini. Stops include Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Nassau.
Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, the U.K.-based company, features a 35-day, 10 port cruise which overnights in Havana. The refurbished 800-passenger Boudicca departs January 19, 2012, from Southampton, England. United Caribbean Line, a start-up company headed by a former cruise executive Bruce Nierenberg, is planning to re-incarnate roundtrip ferry service to Havana from Tampa. Presently the company has no ships, nor permission to operate from either government. Maybe it is easier to buy a ticket to outer space.
Americans do not have access to a convenient Cuba cruise vacation
Seven million passengers traveled on cruise ships in the Caribbean last year. There were 122 ships sailing in the region – 98 percent from American companies, owners of the cruise industry. Canadians are the largest in-bound market for Cuba tourism, nearly a million arrivals annually. That compares to about 40,000 Americans. Cuba’s existing cruise market caters to Europeans, mostly Spanish.
That is the situation and the opportunity, says Havana’s port director. “The American cruise market is too big to ignore,” explains Jose A. Lopez Picos, a 41 year veteran with the nationalized port management company. “If everything were resolved, we could attract 3.5 million visitors, including a half a million cruise passengers, but there would have to be serious changes in legislation.”
For starters, cruise ships presently are forbidden from going to any U.S.port for six months after visiting Havana or the country’s other two docking ports – Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos. The solution is simple – the trade embargo ruling has to change. Then American cruise companies can cultivate and groom a fledgling cruise business in the Caribbean’s largest country.
While the embargo continues, there is an end in sight. Positive buzz is flowing like Havana Club rum. Fueled by the March 2011 announcement from the Obama administration, travel restrictions for U.S.citizens are now further relaxed – at least 11 more airports in the United States are awarded rights to fly (charters) in and out of Cuba. The Revolution was in 1959. It’s only taken 52 years.
“Obama is doing what he can,” says Fernando Gonzalez de Silva, Associated Press senior producer, based in Havana. We chatted at Las Terrazas, one of the restaurant/bars Ernest Hemmingway used to frequent, a stop on the “Get to Know Hemmingway” city tour. Based in Havana for the past ten years, the veteran reporter covers hard news, including the embargo. “Officials here in Cuba think their efforts are greater than those of the U.S.”
When the anticipated door opens, prominent commercial giants, other than the cruise industry, will have a deeper stake in the country’s 11 million consumers. When allowed, Kimberley Clarke, Kraft, General Mills, and Proctor & Gamble will push to step ashore first. It is striking to walk through a neighborhood grocery store and not see any recognizable necessities. Crest, Cheerios, Tide, you want it – not there.
Should Royal Caribbean have their eyes on doing turnarounds in Havana with the “Oasis of the Seas?” Take your time packing. Some goals might be too grand. “ The harbor could never handle it,” says port director Mr. Picos. “The maximum we can accommodate is a 70,000-ton ship with 2,000 passengers. Longer berths are planned, but not needed today.” The largest ship to come in recent times is the 1,500 passenger Thomson Dream (January 2011).
When will Americans walk down the gangway?
Read Part 2: Cruising to Cuba – What you should know now