Cuba’s gradual opening to cruise tourism is generating industry excitement about the Caribbean as a whole, redounding to the benefit of both cruise lines and Cuban destinations. Yet, the early fantasy of Havana becoming a busy, popular cruise port again is yielding to more practical realities.
Real-world limitations mean that Cuba has some ways to go before its impact on cruising at large is widely felt. Chief among them is the infrastructure needed to dock and unload large, modern cruise ships.
“As long as it’s just a pier-and-a-half in Havana, it isn’t going to be too significant,” Carnival Corp. chairman Micky Arison said.
Still, the measured arrival in Cuba of cruise ships from the U.S. is already changing some things. Competing ports in the Caribbean are sprucing up, some aging vessels have gained a new lease on life, one U.S. port has cause to celebrate and travel agents have an intriguing new product to sell.
What’s more, most analysts assume that of all parts of the travel industry, the cruise sector stands to get the most benefit from Cuba’s revival.
Richard Fain, chairman of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., agreed with that assessment. “Nobody’s talking about ‘Oh, this is great for the hotel industry,'” he said. “Nobody’s talking about [how] this is great for the airline industry. But cruising offers an opportunity to visit ports of call, places that otherwise would be a little difficult to visit. So even though Cuba today is an insignificant part of any of our businesses, I think it says something.”
In fact, U.S. hoteliers have made a bit of headway in developing new properties in Cuba. But that development has been slow, and the island, including its capital, Havana, offers few quality hotels at affordable prices. That fact, too, is pushing people to travel by cruise to Cuba, since the vessel in which they arrive also serves as their hotel for their visit.
According to a recent Miami Herald estimate, approvals are in place to take about 172,000 U.S. cruise passengers to Cuba this year. That’s a fraction of the 25.3 million people expected to take a cruise worldwide.
It also looks small compared with Cuba’s neighbors in the Caribbean. Jamaica hosted 1.66 million cruise passengers in 2016, according to tourism minister Edmund Bartlett, while the Bahamas drew more than 4.2 million.
But Cuba’s central location in the Caribbean is hard to overlook. Ten times the size of the Bahamas or Jamaica and more than 775 miles long, it sits astride every potential route in the eastern, western and northern Caribbean — a fact that could spell trouble for Cuba’s neighbors, especially if they haven’t improved their cruise facilities lately.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case. If Caribbean ports once took their cruise traffic for granted, they don’t anymore, said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, tourism commissioner of the U.S. Virgin Islands.