(12:45 p.m. EDT) — Cruise executives envision a future in which there will be a ship in Havana every day of the week, with Cuba cruises creating interest in the Caribbean that will grow passenger demand for all cruise lines.
"The Caribbean is by far the largest cruising destination today and growing a little bit every year," Frank del Rio, chairman of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, told a packed room of cruise industry insiders and journalists at the 32nd annual Seatrade Global conference in Fort Lauderdale. "Cuba when it opens will shed a bright light on the overall area."
Both Richard Fain, chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited, and Arnold Donald, president of Carnival Corp, agreed.
"Cuba is a great refresher for the Caribbean," Donald said. "It’ll help all brands and all the rest of the Caribbean islands. People who go for Cuba will also go to other ports."
Fain called the Cuba effect a "halo of interest." Cruises to Cuba, he said, will add just two percent to the overall number of Caribbean ports open to the industry but will add 10 to 20 percent in demand for Caribbean cruising. "It’s a great opportunity for the cruise industry and a great opportunity for the Caribbean in general."
The panel came on the day when the White House announced that travel restrictions to Cuba for Americans would be further loosened. Individuals will now be able to travel to the island on their own for people-to-people trips; previously, people had to be with an licensed tour group.
Both del Rio and Fain, along with Arnold Donald, president of Carnival Corp. and Pierfrancesco Vago, chairman of MSC Cruises, agreed there are many challenges ahead for the cruise industry in Cuba.
"There are limitations," del Rio said. "Havana’s port can handle one medium size ship at a time. There will be a slow rolling start. My guess is there will be a ship in port every day of the week, because we all want to be there."
"As an industry, we’re pragmatic, we’re realists," Fain added. "The infrastructure isn’t going to support five to six thousand passenger ships. But it doesn’t need to."
MSC Chairman Vago, who already has one ship in Cuba and will be homeporting a ship from Havana year-round next year, shed a little light on the logistics of cruising in Cuba, summing up the situation in one word: complex.
There is only one terminal MSC ships can use and, when docked, they stick out quite a bit because the port is so small, he said. Add in all the details related to embarking and disembarking passengers, moving luggage and loading provisions and the logistics get more and more complex, he said.
One positive Vago said the other executives on the panel should take away is that as Cuba works more with MSC, the government and port workers are learning more about the needs of the industry and will start to make changes. "They have a good understanding of what they need to change in terms of infrastructure."
Carnival Corp’s Donald pointed out that it doesn’t hurt that ships bring much of the infrastructure with them. He added that Carnival Corp. is "optimistic" about getting the permit needed for its new cruise line Fathom, which is scheduled to begin sailings to Cuba from Miami in May.
Getting permits from Cuba is the only thing that’s currently holding up Fathom, as well as Pearl Seas Cruises. The latter line was supposed to begin cruises from Fort Lauderdale to Havana on March 6, but had to cancel two sailings because approval meetings hadn’t taken place. Currently, Cuba Cruises, operated by Celestyal, and International Expeditions, are the only cruise lines that allow Americans to sail to Cuba.