Cruising to Cuba? Not So Fast

February 22, 2008
Within seconds (or so it seemed) of Fidel Castro announcing his resignation as the leader of Cuba, the American media was rife with rumors of future cruise ship calls to Havana. Currently, Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba by a decades-old U.S. trade embargo, but sanctions could be lifted if a friendlier regime starts to hold sway. If you've caught the Cuba cruise fever, don't put out your cigars just yet. You won't see a ship from a U.S.-owned company in Havana anytime soon.

Here's how the rumor mill got going: On Tuesday, Castro announced that he would not accept another term as president of Cuba. His brother Raul, who has been serving as acting president since July 2006, will officially take over the role this weekend.

Later that day, UBS Analyst Robin Farley put out a report saying that "new leadership [in Cuba] could be a positive event for the cruise industry if diplomatic relations resulted in the opening of Cuba to American tourism." Although Farley acknowledged that no one knows if and when the U.S. will end its economic embargo of Cuba, she titillated the crowd by offering her company's belief that "operators could build dockside infrastructure on a much faster timeline than it would take to build U.S. branded hotel product. Itineraries could be sold with just several months advance notice."

Suddenly, everyone began talking about cruising to Cuba. Even Cruise Critic readers joined the fray. Member Host Mach posted a thread asking if "in a few years we might see Havana on the list of ports of call for Carnival?" and 53 percent of Cruise Critic readers said in a recent poll that they've always wanted to go. But are Cuba cruises really in our future?

It is true that cruise ships have visited and continue to call in Havana and other Cuban ports. Pullmantur ships traveled to Cuba until Royal Caribbean bought the Spanish line, and Britain's Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has ships visiting the island nation this year.

Plus, it wouldn't be too hard to add Cuba to a Caribbean itinerary. "From a purely logistical standpoint, it's very easy to put Cuba into an itinerary," says Holland America spokesman Erik Elvejord. "It's close to the gateways. You could switch Cuba for St. Thomas on an itinerary and it wouldn't hurt fuel efficiency."

But Elvejord acknowledges the many issues standing in the way of Cuba cruising. The obvious is the political one -- the U.S. has not announced a plan to end the embargo, and there's no sense of whether that will happen in the next six months, five years, or never. If it should happen, there are questions of cost (will Cuba levy a tax on visitors?) and access (how many berths will be available for new cruise ships and what restrictions will be placed on U.S. tourists?).

So until the U.S. ends the embargo, U.S.-based cruise lines refuse to speculate on when and if they'll be cruising there. As Royal Caribbean and Celebrity so succinctly put it in an official statement: "Until the government regulations change, we don't discuss Cuba." But we bet that if the restrictions are lifted, the cruise lines will jockey for a berth at a new (to them) port, since there are so few accessible Caribbean ports that aren't already on cruise line itineraries.

In the meantime, add your opinion to the growing list on Cruise Critic's boards. Or, put on a little Barry Manilow, and dream of the day when you can disembark a mega-ship and set foot on Cuba's once-forbidden shores.

--by Erica Silverstein, Associate Editor