When U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro
made a joint statement on 17DEC, 2014 about normalizing relationship between
the two countries, it came “out of the blue," to use the words of
This perhaps explains why the cruise industry response to the development
initially appeared so cautious. Statements by cruise industry execs were
mainly limited to bland predictions about the “opportunity for the industry."
But fast-forward three months and, politically speaking, all appears to be
progressing towards re-establishing relations. Now the question becomes, if
that happens will the cruise industry be ready?
During the recent state of the industry panel at
Cruise Shipping Miami, moderator Richard Quest from CNN asked the CEOs of the
business, “Are you ready for when Cuba opens up legally?"
Responses varied, with Royal Caribbean's Richard Fain surprisingly sounding the
most cautious. “Clearly, we'll all comply with the rules and everything else,"
he replied. “I'm not sure any of us are ready."
Fain went on to say that Cuba represents an amazing opportunity. “Cuba used to
be the ultimate destination for cruising," he pointed out. "Are you ready
for Cuba?" interrupted the moderator. “No," said Fain bluntly.
Reading through Fain's comments, one got the sense that perhaps having a ship
the size of
may not be the right fit for Cuba as a destination, at least at the start. But
later in the panel, Fain expertly weaved Azamara's smaller ships and Cuba into
“One of the smallest brands in the industry, Azamara, really started this whole
process of what they call 'destination immersion', and more time, not less, in
the ports," he said. “And you're seeing that's a trend that's growing, because
people want both. And in Cuba we will have the opportunity to give people the
experience of Cuba but the infrastructure of an industrialized western
In contrast to Fain, NCLH's Del Rio sharply snapped his fingers and said, “Like
that," when asked about readiness for Cuba. He then added emphatically,
“Yes...once the rules allow us to go legally, once the embargo is lifted which
is the main restriction."
Del Rio continued that one of the raps on the development of tourism in Cuba is
the lack of infrastructure. Indeed, Cuba has 60,000 hotel rooms -- by
comparison Florida alone has 370,000. Like Fain, he indicates that plays into
the cruise industry's hands.
“The wonderful thing about the cruise industry is we bring our own
infrastructure [to Cuba]," says Del Rio. “So yes, we're ready. And I would bet
that all of us on this panel are ready to move at a drop of a hat. Today we go
to other destinations that are probably less developed than Cuba is today...so
if we can go to those places we can certainly go to Cuba. It's only 222 miles
from Miami to Cuba."
As for the largest player in the Caribbean region, Carnival Corp's CEO Arnold
Donald said, “Certainly we have plans. When the embargo is lifted, we'll be
there. We'll put in what we need to put in with cooperation and development."
Meanwhile, as MSC Cruises is based in Geneva, Switzerland, company executive
chairman Pierfrancesco Vago reminded everyone, “I'm European. I have no
embargo. I'm already there." Vago was referencing cargo ships operated by MSC
that currently call in Cuba.
But perhaps it was significant in regards to Cuba that later that same day MSC
made its big announcement regarding a return to year-round Caribbean cruising
from Miami starting in November 2017. No one is saying that Cuba is the reason
that MSC is bringing a new ship to Miami. But having Cuba as an option makes
everything more attractive in terms of itineraries from south Florida.
For North American retailers, the opening of Cuba can't come soon enough as
that change will undoubtedly create demand for Caribbean cruises. “We're
chomping at the bit," said one Caribbean seller. “Opening Cuba is likely
to be the thing that revitalizes this entire part of the industry in terms of