Cuba Libre
Cruise Lines Set Sail For Cuba

by Vanessa Lee

MSC Opera

MSC CEO Gianni Onorato

Cuba Cruises' Celestyal Crystal

The Adonia

It had to happen sooner or later and suddenly it's Cuba, Cuba, Cuba everywhere, especially this week with headlines from several cruise lines who are taking a leap of faith and setting up inaugural programs there.

First it was MSC Cruises with an announcement from their Geneva head office advising they are sending the newly refurbished MSC Opera to Havana beginning this December. That's quite the last minute move and I can see the hands of their very impressive CEO Gianni Onorato in this mix – he is one astute chap who, I believe, having sat in several meetings with him, has one of the sharpest, most strategic minds in the business. And clearly Mr. Castro thinks so too.

The MSC international move is not related to MSC Cruises USA offices as the ship will be populated with guests from Europe, South America and Canada. And yes this is a big opportunity for Canada and the MSC sales team here, led by Ian Patterson, as we all know how much Canadians enjoy Cuba and have been keen to cruise into (and from) that Island. The program operated by Celestyal Cruises with their brand, Cuba Cruise in their 1st 2 seasons, although taking some time to get off the ground, has been relatively successful apparently and will be back this winter for another season – although with more competition now!

The other huge announcement came from Carnival Corp and their new fathom brand. The U.S. Department of Treasury and the Department of Commerce have given fathom the green light to cruise to Cuba from Miami beginning in May 2016. The reason this newly-created brand has been given approval is apparently because of its focus on “cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens". Previously announced itineraries to the Dominican Republic for fathom will now be interspersed with their Cuban itineraries although the price tag seems disproportionately higher for Cuba than for the DR.

A sign of the American cruiser's interest in not only seeing and sailing to Cuba, but also in the concept of fathom itself which is essentially to send guests to destinations where they can help people in need, make a difference and assist in making meaningful contributions – something to which we can all aspire.

The ship for fathom is the current adults-only P&O liner, Adonia which will stay in the fleet but be “seconded" for “social impact" cruising and which will still be run by P&O shipboard services while sailing under the fathom brand.

It's all still smelling a bit new and I see companies vying for their place in port with likely more brands to follow – especially those who are internationally based, as currently most U.S. based cruise lines would not qualify under the 12 criteria that presently exist for “authorized travel".

Methinks, and this is just Vanessa spouting off with my own opinion, that the Canadian tour operators already working closely with MSC Cruises on a few fly/cruise programs will be champing at the bit to get planes in the air for Cuba along with a number of those beds on MSC Opera this winter. A great way to put “bums in berths," as we like to say in the industry, without blocking more hotel beds. I would think we should stay tuned for more announcements coming about 7 day charter patterns into HAV with Opera as the destination. She has just undergone a major “renaissance" renovation and will be in dandy shape for this new opportunity. I sailed on the Opera about 10 years ago in the Med and thought she was quite a lovely ship and a good size with only about 2100 guests.

The itinerary looks great with 2 nights in Havana and more than 2 days spent in Cuba overall, as well as ports in Mexico, Jamaica and Grand Cayman – a different twist on a typical Western Caribbean itinerary that has been begging for some new interest for many a year.

Now Cuba Cruise, a division of Celestyal Cruises has some bigger competition with deep pockets, so let's look at what they have planned for 15/16. They just hired a very capable V.P. of Sales and Marketing in Chris Chiang (whom I like a lot) who has a lengthy, successful and extensive cruise career having been at Transat Cruise for years and then Celebrity. Clearly Celestyal has bigger plans for Canada across the board and under Chris' leadership I am sure they will do well (and of course they are Greek based so no U.S. issues to be dealt with).

Cuba Cruise has a new itinerary for this winter, also offering 2 days in Havana, and have extended the number of departures thru April 2016. Embarkation is Mondays from Havana and Fridays from Mobay in Jamaica. (note from author – I suspect we may see MSC do the same – more than one embarkation port – as they do in the Med).

Let's see how this all unfolds in the next few months – finally Cuba is here as a viable port and embarkation point. It will be fascinating to watch what occurs over the next year.

(will not be published)