Is Cuba Ready for Cruise Ships?

April 15, 2009

<img src="//" align="right" width="275" height="162" alt="Cuba" title-"Cuba">
If cruise ships offer itineraries that call at Cuba's Havana, will Cruise Critic members be aboard?

Absolutely, according to results of a poll this week on Cruise Critic's message boards. More than 72 percent who responded said that they are interested in visiting the island on a cruise vacation. Fewer than 13 percent said they would not consider a cruise to Cuba because they do not want to support the government of the now-off-limits island.

Cuba as a cruise destination is top of mind, due to some new buzz. This week President Barack Obama announced some loosening of restrictions regarding travel between Cuba and the U.S. At this point the beneficiaries are Cuban Americans with relatives living on the island (they'll now be allowed to visit as often as they like, rather than once every three years). Still, the stance-softening move signals that travel restrictions for Americans in general (Europeans and Canadians have not been restricted from visiting Cuba) may be loosening up. And for cruise travelers from the U.S., Cuba has long been intriguing.

Especially because so many cruises, particularly between Eastern Caribbean ports and south Florida, brush past the mysterious island. Says Cruise Critic member DonMar, " Each time we cruise near Cuba [my significant other] has me take a photo with Cuba in the background. He would jump at the chance to sit in a cafe in Havana and smoke a cigar."

The mystique of Cuba may be prevalent -- but is Cuba itself ready for hoards of big ship cruisers from the U.S? In an Associated Press report, Deputy Tourism Minister Maria Elena Lopez acknowledged that certain aspects of Cuba's tourism industry need to improve and that the current infrastructure may not be equipped to accommodate a vast influx of American tourists. Havana's not necessarily ready to welcome 3,000-plus passenger ships and the facilities such behemoths require (docks, port terminals, air-conditioned buses for shore excursions, and shopping possibilities).

There are other challenges. Aside from allowing U.S. citizens to travel freely to the island, there's currently a ban in place that forbids ships to dock in U.S. ports if they have docked at Cuban ports within six months. According to the Associated Press, Wachovia analyst Tim Conder forecasts that if bans are, indeed, lifted, "we believe it will be one to three years, at best, before all of the pieces fall into place to allow the cruise industry to begin calling on Cuban ports."

At this point, major cruise lines are still not announcing any concrete plans to call in Cuba should the ban be lifted. The U.S.-based lines will of course have to wait for official rules to change before they can even begin to plan for adding Cuba to Caribbean itineraries though it's clear that the island offers a fresh new angle.

Mimi Weisband of Crystal Cruises said in a recent media interview that "we welcome the opportunity to add new destinations to our Caribbean itineraries, and Cuba is ideally located for cruises into and out of South Florida."

Interestingly, Royal Caribbean and Carnival stocks rose after the travel restrictions were eased for Cuban American family members, but neither line has directly attributed the gains to hopes of future Cuba calls. A Royal Caribbean spokesman, for one, says "We would prefer not to speculate about the circumstances surrounding the subject."

Would you want to visit Cuba by cruise? There's still time to vote in our poll and share your opinion!

--by Kim Kazell, Assistant Editor