Industry leaders see Cuba as a gateway for the entire Caribbean, speculating that most cruise lines will incorporate Cuba but may not travel there exclusively. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): MSC Opera (above) currently sails to Havana and a second vessel, MSC Armonia, will begin Cuba sailings this November. // © 2016 MSC Cruises
The recent news of the breakthrough deal allowing Fathom, Carnival Corporation & Plc’s social-impact cruise brand, to sail from Miami to Cuba tied right in to the constant discussion of Cuba at 2016’s Seatrade Cruise Global. During the conference, which took place in mid-March in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., executives analyzed the potential impact of Cuba cruises on the Caribbean. They agreed that the Western Caribbean will get a big jump, and the presence of Cuba after so long will cast a halo of interest that will benefit the entire region, which still represents 42 to 43 percent of all deployment.
Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz predicted that the region, with its rich culture and beautiful islands, will remain cruising’s core product — not only for North American guests, but for the rest of world, too, bring visibility to populations that may not have thought of visiting the region before. She sees a future of increasing demand and more diversification in sourcing.
Mark Conroy, managing director for the Americas for Silversea Cruises, characterized the Caribbean as “consistent” — the one region with easy access from North America and that features great weather. He said that with eight or nine ports and inexpensive ticket prices, the region will always see strong demand. Conroy added that this is probably the best year Silversea has ever had in the Caribbean. During the event’s various sessions, other executives also underlined the region’s strong performance.
According to Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival, the direct effect on the company’s overall financials will not be great when Fathom’s 704-passenger Adonia sails, but Donald did note that Cuba will bring a halo effect for the entire Caribbean and attract first-time passengers to the region and to cruising, as well attract veteran Caribbean cruisers.
Speculation is wide about whether other cruise lines plan to move into Cuba on the people-to-people cruises or wait for mainstream cruising to open up.
“When Cuba opens up, it will be a slow rolling start; there is a limit to what can be handled, and most cruises will incorporate Cuba, not be devoted exclusively to it,” predicted Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.
Executives agreed that sailings to Cuba will generally be part of itineraries calling in other nations. Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, said that Cuba cruises will allow many itineraries to include one less day at sea and one more port experience. He noted that nearby ports, such as the Yucatan Peninsula, will have an opportunity to step up, too.
Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman for MSC Cruises, whose MSC Opera has been calling in Havana on sailings marketed exclusively to non-U.S. citizens, said his line’s presence in Cuba has helped to pave the way for others, helping Cubans understand what is needed to host the industry. This November, MSC is adding a second vessel, Armonia, to its Cuba operation and will sail there year-round.
Donald observed that 3.5 million tourists already visit Cuba annually, so the infrastructure is not starting from scratch. Fain noted that Cuba doesn’t have to support large new ships.
“In terms of size, it isn’t going to divert that much, and it’s a great opportunity for the Caribbean as a whole,” he said.
Panelists pointed out benefits on both sides: Cuba will open up cruising to a lot of people who have never taken a cruise; and cruising allows Cuba to expand business without putting high-rises on every corner while it builds long-term infrastructure.