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For the world’s three largest cruise companies, Cuba represents a tantalizingly close — but still off-limits — destination that they see as key to adding new buzz to traditional Caribbean sailings.
Still without official permission from the Cuban government, cruise giant Carnival Corp. plans to start sailing to the island from Miami in May with its Fathom brand. Last summer, the company announced intentions to go to Cuba after receiving approval from the U.S. government.
“We do not have approval from the Cubans yet, so we’re anxiously awaiting that,” said Arnold Donald, CEO of Miami-based Carnival Corp., on Tuesday. “We’re optimistic that come May, we’ll be sailing.”
Donald and leaders of three other cruise companies spoke about Cuba and other topics during a discussion about the state of the global cruise industry in Fort Lauderdale Tuesday at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference.
Rivals Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings are preparing for their own ventures. And smaller competitor MSC Cruises, which is based in Switzerland, already visits the island with one ship and has announced plans to add another later this year. Those voyages have not been open to U.S. passengers.
Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of MSC Cruises, called operations in Cuba “very complex” and said that officials there need to update the infrastructure to accommodate modern vessels.
“The potential is there; they have the infrastructure in the port,” Vago said. “It’s just the will of Cuba and the people of Cuba to open up to the rest of the world. They have the potential to make it an incredible paradise.”
Still, it was clear other executives were envious of his presence there.
“The last time I was in Havana, one of his ships was there,” Royal Caribbean Cruises Chairman and CEO Richard Fain said, referring to Vago. “And it pissed me off. The next time Pierfrancesco is in Havana, he’s going to have to look at ours.”
The Obama administration has been easing restrictions on travel to the island since December of 2014, with the most recent announcement coming Tuesday. Americans still cannot visit the island as tourists, which complicates matters for cruise lines.
Frank Del Rio, who joked that his entire Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings fleet is circling the island waiting to pounce, said he thinks the industry will have to start out slow with medium-sized ships once they receive permission.
“My guess is there will be a ship in Havana every day of the week,” he said, but he and others said the rest of the Caribbean didn’t need to worry about Cuba taking too many passengers.
“In terms of size, it’s not going to divert that much traffic from other places because it simply doesn’t have the capability of handling that many other ships,” he said. “What it does do is create a halo of interest.”
Donald called the destination “a great refresher for the Caribbean.”
“There’s pent-up demand here in the U.S.,” he said. “People who think they’ve got the Caribbean will say: ‘I’ll go back to see Cuba.'”