Havana Cruise Approvals
What Does It Mean To Us?

by Vanessa Lee

RCI Empress

Oceana Marina

RSSC Mariner

Photo credit: Niko Guido/iStock

Pearl Mist

It’s all about Cuba these days – will “they” or won’t “they” and if “they” do – then who gets to sail in? Well, this week we did get a few answers with press releases coming out from NCLH the holding company for Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises as well as from RCCL about 2 of its brands, Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises. All 5 brands have been given permission, to some degree, to include Havana on SELECT sailings starting in March 2017.

Pearl Seas Cruises has also just announced that they will be cruising to Cuba from Florida in January 2017. The line has a 10 night cruise scheduled to depart FLL January 17th aboard the 210 passenger  Pearl Mist. 

Additional info is still coming in on the major lines' announcements, but this is what we know for sure. On March 7th, Oceania Cruises’ ship the Marina will leave Miami and have Cuba as a highlight port of call on that voyage. Along with other Caribbean ports of call as well. Then the RSSC Mariner will also call in Havana on several voyages operating in April. Plus Norwegian will have Norwegian Sky going there on short cruises in May.

What does this mean to Canadians, many of whom have long been visiting the island of Cuba, renowned for its lovely beaches, all-inclusive hotels and friendly people – all of whom want North American money and a few side gifts as well. Something we are used to and amenable to as well.  Also of course Cuba is a price-sensitive destination offering many great deals and buffet dinners to hundreds of thousands of Canadian holiday-makers each year. Personally I have never been and am not fussed about going. I am not an all-inclusive beach girl in any respect. However I would love to see Havana.

What it means to a cruise audience is that finally, there will be a different port of call, on that Western Caribbean or deep Caribbean itinerary. Not just Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica any more – but the added attraction of Cuba, may well stir the interest of those who may have cruised that itinerary more than a few times and would love to see something different and new. Rather like what Norwegian has done recently by opening up Belize and their well-received new destination/private port of Harvest Caye. Big kudos there btw and I, for one, am keen to go and see it.

And Royal Caribbean International and sister brand, Azamara have also finally been given permission  to cruise to Cuba. The old (and delightful) Nordic Empress from the RCI fleet, recently re-fluffed and buffed and named Empress of the Seas, has been champing at the veritable bit for months to head to Havana. As has Michael Bayley head of RCI who 1st spoke about the intentions for that ship on Anthem of the Seas last year.  

However, and it’s a big however, “they”, being the Cuban Government, are playing hard to get as usual and they are also being coy. Many of the lines only have a limited approval to sail and also on a time-constrained basis. Details are still coming out and once we hear more from RCI we will know, if indeed, the Empress will sail on some regular voyages from Florida or whether she will be somewhat limited to a specific time-line.

So the big toe has been dipped. Will the cruise lines be allowed to wade in for a more extensive time period? Will the waters be warm and welcoming or will there be a few sharks swimming around? It’s really hard to say. Carnival Corp. is waiting to hear if they will have an extension to sail past May right now. And of course they are discontinuing the Fathom brand entirely – with less than a year under its belt. They are to be applauded for giving it a good try but the audience was too small and equally the audience didn’t quite get it. With the Adonia, the ship used for Fathom going back to parent line P&O, how will Carnival manage Cuba cruises on its much larger ships? Does it make any sense?

And how big a ship can really call on Havana with its limited port infrastructure anyway? Can the island possibly manage a disgorging of more than 3000 cruisers at one time. Likely not – which is exactly why the ships, so far, are of a certain size with 1250 guests for Oceania and  600+ guests for RSSC and slightly bigger for the Sky and possibly Empress. Certainly they are not carrying several thousands of guests.  

There are a number of foreign-flagged cruise lines – such as MSC, with its 2 ships there and Cuba Cruise from Celestyal, already calling on a regular schedule with Havana being a highlight of some of their Caribbean itineraries. The new announcements are different in that these are U.S. based companies planning to sail from Florida – not Jamaica or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

I am sure it will all unfold soon and we shall see if this experiment works and which ships and lines actually get longer-term permission. And actually do we Canadians feel this is an important change or does it really matter to us? Is it yet again more about our neighbours to the south and their apparent (or not) pent up demand to say Hola to Havana?

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