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Perhaps no other cruise industry CEO knows as much about the reality of Americans cruising to Cuba as Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corporation & Plc.
Donald actively participated in Carnival brand Fathom’s ability to become the first American cruise line to receive U.S. and Cuban approval to sail into Cuba from the U.S. Additionally, when the cruise was only a few weeks out, he oversaw the Cuban government’s reversal of a restriction that prohibited Cuban-Americans from sailing to Cuba.
Below, Donald shares the pros and cons of being first, the realities of working with the Cuban government, the nature of people-to-people travel, the experience of cruising with Fathom and what changes will likely come for the future of Cuba cruises.
There’s a perception out there that people-to-people educational travel, one of OFAC’s 12 approved forms of travel to Cuba, is intense and restricted, with little free time or ability to explore and wander. Is that true?Fathom makes it easy. First of all, if you sign up with Fathom, you will qualify within the 12 approved forms of travel. You can also self-certify; Fathom will retain the records for you. In the process of traveling with us, two things happen: You get a deeper experience than if you had flown in and tried to do it on your own, and you also have plenty of time to do what you want to do and wander — so long as you have done the required stuff, which is interesting and fun. It’s not torturous.
How tightly can you really regulate someone’s participation? We don’t regulate anyone’s participation. We make it available — we’re not police. We’re providing the opportunity to certify painlessly, seamlessly and conveniently in a fun and happy way. Cruisers can self-certify and do their own thing, but we are not regulators. We have to be honest with the records we have — that’s the deal.
Do you think there are other products out there that are stricter with enforcing the requirements of participants?I don’t know if they are more or less strict because it’s the same [on-the-ground] tour operators. What we’ve done is try to take some of the skills of Fathom and marry it with those Cuban tour operators to create experiences that would resonate even more with our guests to fit us. We’ve worked alongside our operator, Havanatur , to curate experiences that fit us.
It’s the same tour operators, but the experience is delivered in a very different way.
Can you tell us more about your on-the-ground, state-run partner, Havanatur?They work with groups who fly in, but we have worked with them to curate experiences that will work with the size of our groups. Because we have a large number of people coming in at one time, we get preferential treatment for certain restaurants and experiences.
If you come in [to Cuba] with a group of 10, it’s not like coming in a group of 700. You have some advantage coming with us.
Since Fathom was assigned its tour operator partner by the government, how much can you really do?There was an exchange, not so much training, including information about our guests, the number, the logistics of the ship, what happened on the ship, the state of mind people will be in and how to expedite cruise disembarkation. On our sailing, there was a minor glitch in that we got there on a holiday. There were 14 booths for changing money, but there were only three people working. Normally, that wouldn’t happen. They’ll correct it themselves. It wasn’t a huge thing, but it could be more seamless. With someone flying themselves, they can’t do that.
The other thing is that we get the better guides because of the volume of people. There are subtle advantages that can make the experiences better.
Are there any changes to the Cuba product that you predict will happen for future cruises?We listen. We listen to the guests onboard; we are going to listen to the guides and the on-ground experience areas. We are going to talk to the people at the terminals and the people that embark passengers from Miami onto the ship. As we listen to that, we will then fine-tune what we need to do to make it an even better experience as time goes by.
So, as time goes by, on-ground will become more seamless and tighter? There will probably be some tweaks to experiences, too. There might be ways to go deeper. For example: making sure that the guides know to tell their personal stories, or making sure that the Fathom Impact Guide brings that out of them. I don’t know yet, but we will listen.
What changes might happen for those who prefer to self-certify?We will probably have more information on things that you can do on your own outside what you have already booked with us that would definitely qualify.
Currently, with all passengers being split into smaller groups ranging from around 10 to 25 people, groups are doing some different activities. Will Fathom incorporate increased flexibility in picking and choosing activities?That will definitely be the plan going forward. You’ll get to choose, but whoever books it earliest will get their choice because there are number constraints.
How have Cuban leaders you have met at ports reacted to the cruise? Keep in mind that this is a combination of things. There was a huge move on the part of Cuba to modify that long-standing practice on mode of transport of Cuban-borns, so that was big. That has overarching ramifications way beyond this one cruise ship being there. We chatted about that and things of that scale.
We’ve already submitted for hundreds of ports of call for 2018 for our other brands. Cuba is in the process of revealing that and figuring it out. Practically speaking, other brands probably wouldn’t start cruising here until late this year or next year because all the ships are booked going forward in other places in the world. Cuba is just going to decide how much they want and when.
Since travelers have to qualify through one of OFAC’s 12 allowable categories, how will the other Carnival brands differentiate their inevitable Cuba itineraries with Fathom’s?That’s one of the issues. Everyone will have to make their own decisions. My opinion is that it will have to be smaller ships. If the travel ban is still in place, that will get pretty complicated pretty fast on those tours because of capacity limitations on land tours. Bringing a ship of 4,000 people is just not going to work with the limitations of people-to-people travel. If you bring them in and let them scatter on their own, taking cars to the beaches and hanging out without any supervision, that’s different. Until that happens, there will be scale restrictions. Once that happens, then, all bets are off. A lot of people will want to come to the beach, which is cool.
But not Fathom, which is about social impact for its Dominican Republic itinerary and cultural immersion for its Cuba itinerary, correct?Cuba is the cultural exchange and culture immersion piece of the D.R. product, but it’s not social impact. It can always have that cultural immersion piece in Cuba and probably to a greater extent than a large ship can have.
Do you think you’ll offer the same sort of social-impact experiences that you offer in the D.R. — such as working with nonprofits — in Cuba?We didn’t swoop in and say that we would offer social impact in the D.R. If Cuba has on-the-ground entities that are delivering impact already, and they want it, then, honestly, Fathom would be very interested in doing social impact. But that’s got to come from Cuba.
Cuba is very aware of our brand. When we submitted our original request, we described the Fathom brand, so they understand it. If they want social impact, they will ask us, but we would never be so presumptuous to go in and say, “We will help you.” That would be pretty insulting.
Clearly, Fathom has shown its ability to work with Cuba by being the first to receive approval to cruise here.Cuba was giving us positive feedback, and we weren’t sure whether it would be May 1 or not, but we sure felt it was going to be. We only got nervous when things blew up. Cuba is not going to succumb to one group, and they are not going to have any government tell them what to do, so, as a matter of principle, they might’ve backed out — but they didn’t. Cuba took a bigger point of view, and it all worked out great.
The people of Cuba seem very receptive to hosting Americans in Cuba. It’s amazing. We felt that when I was here during the Obama visit. You could just feel it. I was already committed, but after that visit, there was no turning back. We signed the deal then, but not being sure, I said, “I’m going to trust them, and we are going forward.”
What should travel agents know when explaining this product to their clients?For travel agents, there is no better, more convenient or nicer way to go to Cuba right now than on Fathom, and there may never be. It’s a beautiful, small, luxury, premium-type ship. The experiences are awesome; Cuba is awesome. You’re going to go to three ports. There is no way to do that for the cost by land, air, ground and time.
You are not taking a risk. Your clients will love it if the destination is the thing. If they want to gamble in a casino, it’s not the right ship. It’s not about that. But, if it’s the destination your clients want, there’s no better way to go, and it’s easy. We take all the thinking out of it.
What would be some totally incorrect things an agent could say about this product to their clients?What they could say that would be incorrect is that “It’s just like any other cruise.” That’s not true. I don’t want people coming on here thinking there’s a casino. But what they can say is that it’s just as easy as any other cruise, but it’s a premium cruise and it’s destination-oriented. The other thing that would be incorrect to say is that “It’s really difficult. It’s torturous touring. With people to people, you got to spend eight hours, and it’s like taking an exam.” It’s not that heavy.
And it’s not the same as the D.R.?Correct. The Cuba itinerary is not on-the-ground social impact. It’s not volunteerism. You don’t have to do work.
A lot of folks who’ve experienced the D.R. trip say it’s transformative. Are you pitching that for Cuba as well? I’m not pitching that at all. The D.R. trip is something special. Cuba is an awakening trip. You can’t anticipate the experience you’re going to have. It may or may not transform you, but it’s an experience you will cherish for the rest of your life.
For the D.R., there’s programming on the ship; there are serious moments of self-reflection and personal development. It is about you. People are having transformative moments and thinking about the rest of their lives, what they’ll do differently and how they’re going to be different, while giving back and making a real difference in the region.
In Cuba, it’s a sliver. It’s the cultural immersion and exchange, and you’ll have moments you will cherish for the rest of your life. And I’m sure some people can be individually transformed, but not at the consistent level you’ll see in the D.R. where the whole program is geared that way.
Is there anything you would compare the Fathom brand to?For the D.R., there’s nothing. D.R. is like breaking total ground in all kinds of ways. It’s not voluntourism. It’s just not that. It’s way more than that.
Cuba is a moment in time. It’s a moment that will last for many years, but it’s a moment in time. And if you’ve had other experiences where you’ve traveled and connected with the people, it’s not unique in that way, either. It’s unique in that Cuba is our neighbor. A lot of people in the U.S. have family in the Cuba, and vice versa. We’ve been separated for a long time. It’s a sense of reunion. You feel a sense of coming back together.