The arrival this week of the first regularly scheduled commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in over five decades is yet another tangible example of how the Communist nation is now being welcomed back into a much wider free-trading world. Airlines are not the only ones now desperately trying to get in the front door – cruise lines are in a cold sweat of excitement as they pitch to open up the country’s ports and culture to their passengers.
Situated just over 500 kilometres from the cruise mecca of Miami, Cuba is the hottest thing in cruising right now with every major cruise line in the world interested in the once heavily embargoed Caribbean nation. Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line have all recently hinted that they will sail to Cuba as soon as possible- but why are they interested in the island nation?
Famed for its streets seemingly frozen in time and idyllic white sandy beaches, Cuba has been enchanting land tourists for years with the allure of a world hidden away from modern progression, and is a destination most travellers are looking to tick off their bucket lists.
For those who favour cruising as their preferred method of travel though, access has been almost impossible with few local operators running cruises around the islands. American sanctions in place since 1960 ensured American-based companies such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival Corporation and Norwegian Cruise Line were restricted from calling on any ports in Cuba – regardless of how prevalent each brand’s operations are in Caribbean waters.
Recently thawed relations between Washington and Havana have seen the sanctions slowly eased, enough to see Carnival develop a dedicated brand to sail to Cuba. Fathom therefore joined MSC Cruises as one of the only two Western cruise lines now venturing to Cuba.
Europe-based brand MSC Cruises has gone a step further, jumping the queue by virtue of having none of the applicable embargoed restrictions levied on it. The line kicked down the front door and last season based a ship in Cuba, sailing seven-night voyages from Havana.
These proved so popular with guests from around the world, the line will later this year add a second ship on its Cuban voyages. These itineraries incorporate multiple overnight stays in Havana, allowing guests to fully appreciate the city and its world famous nightlife without having to stay in Cuba’s notoriously bad hotels. MSC’s Cuban sailings also visit other ports in the Caribbean, a direct contrast to the 1950s lifestyle passengers experience in Havana.
A notable downside to cruising in Cuba is that this 60-year time warp in which Cuba has been stuck has seen little to no development in modern port infrastructure, which currently limits larger ships to only four ports in Cuba. Havana is able to dock ships similar in size to Carnival Spirit, however the remaining three ports of Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Juventud are only able to accept smaller ships similar in size to Pacific Eden.
In preparation for an eventual green light, cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean – which in recent years has been focused on building giant ships Ovation of the Seas and Harmony of the Seas – has renewed its efforts on smaller ships, recently relaunching Empress of the Seas in preparation of entering the Cuban market.
Recognising both the challenges and the enormous rewards in play with Cuba, plans are being developed by the three major cruise lines to develop their own port infrastructure in Cuba. Some are even planning to develop their own port destinations – similar to those found in other Caribbean ports such as Carnival’s Mahogany Bay in Honduras.
It is easy to get excited about a new destination opening itself back up to tourism revenues, but the cruise lines are taking a measured approach to its development and opting not to simply arrive in massive numbers and overwhelm a still clearly unprepared local economy.
Recent suggestions that the cruise lines might develop ports in Cuba capable of handling as many as 7,000+ passengers on the world’s largest ships have been tempered in favour of a much more gradual step-by-step process. This all forms the backbone for cruise lines to get in at the grassroots level and build ports tailored to suit their needs, rather than their wants.
Cruise lines are hugely attracted to Cuba’s geographic location. The 530 kilometre journey from Southern Florida is something which makes the island nation accessible on short cruises of three to four nights. Alternatively, seven-night voyages can see ships sail at a slower pace, using less fuel and providing guests well versed in the Caribbean with a reason to come back.
While using less fuel lowers costs for the cruise line, this doesn’t mean it will necessarily translate into low fares for passengers. For example, Cuban itineraries on MSC are around 10-20% more expensive compared to similar cruises from Miami to the Caribbean.
This price difference sees cruise lines making more money per passenger and is another large driver towards sailing to the island nation. The Fathom brand, which focuses on a holistic approach in discovering Cuba with volunteering opportunities and shore excursions included, charges 30% more on average compared to its sailings to the Dominican Republic.
Ultimately, the most important theory for why the cruise lines are so excited about Cuba is that passengers from all around the world are clamouring for access to to the culture-rich nation. This is in contrast to demand for the rest of the Caribbean, where guests from long-haul markets such as Australia and New Zealand struggle to justify the expense of cruising the region when similar destinations are on their doorstep.
As they say, business is a game of supply and demand and all the cruise lines want to do is satisfy the demand for Cuba!
Where does Cuba sit on your bucket list? Tell us in the comments below!