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Since the first Miami-to-Havana cruise in decades sailed in 2016, operators have steadily waded back into the market.
Their entry has been slow by design even as demand stayed strong: Red tape, government approval, and limited physical capacity combined to keep Cuba a destination popular with cruisers but not yet overrun.
But recent moves in Cuba suggest the goal is to remove some of those barriers — especially where capacity is concerned. And that has some experts and tour guides concerned.
“I think that the project that’s being announced is overexuberant and not particularly aligned with reality,” said John Thomas, a hospitality law professor at Florida International University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management who has studied tourism in Cuba. “I don’t think Cuba has the resources to do what the prospective expansion is intended to do. I don’t think there is demand to support it.”
Last month, Istanbul-based Global Ports Holding said it had been tapped to manage Havana’s port operations. Capacity will triple in size by 2024, the company said, making it possible for six ships a day to visit — though it’s unclear if that would happen.
Details are still hazy, including what size ships would be able to call on the port, what kind of construction will be necessary, and how many people could visit on a busy day. In an announcement, Global Ports Holding said the port has a capacity of two berths and welcomed 328,000 cruise passengers in 2017, a 156 percent increase over the previous year. Projections call for 500,000 passengers this year, according to the company.
“As part of Cuba’s significant investment program into the port and surrounding area the number of berths will increase to six by 2024, significantly increasing the passenger capacity of the Havana port,” the announcement said.
Global Ports Holding will have good reason to increase the number of passengers: It will be paid a management fee based on factors that include passenger numbers, with incentives for growth.
Cruise Operators Respond
Cruise line representatives said the port project would, of course, allow them to increase their presence in the destination — an attractive proposition, considering the response they’ve seen since Cuba opened up as a cruise option two years ago.
“Cuba has already become an important part of our Caribbean strategy, but this effort will allow us to add additional sailings and capacity into Cuba,” Roger Frizzell, chief communications officer for Carnival Corp., said in an email. That will include larger ships and more brands, he said.
For now, the industry giant has two of its nine brands visiting Cuba. Carnival Cruise Line last month announced the addition of 23 more sailings on five different ships in 2019 and 2020, including the 3,002-passenger Carnival Sunshine. That will be the largest vessel to visit the island; most others have had capacity closer to 2,000 or less.
Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has sent ships from all three of its cruise lines — Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — to ports in Cuba, which a spokeswoman called “one of our most popular destinations.”
“We are pleased that Cuba is committed to expanding its port infrastructure and look forward to sending additional ships to Havana to meet our guests’ demand for Cuba cruises,” the company said in a statement.
Royal Caribbean Cruises, which sends its Azamara Club Cruises and Royal Caribbean International brands to the island, gave no details about its long-term plans. But Rob Zeiger, global chief communications officer, said in an email that the company remains “optimistic about Cuba’s potential as a marquee cruise destination.”
“Making the right decisions about infrastructure development is important for any destination, and we have always anticipated strategic and responsible development to be part of the long-term plan for Havana and other Cuban ports,” Zeiger said.
Executives have said this year that the restrictions placed by the Trump administration on travel to Cuba were actually good for cruise lines because the changes made travel by land more cumbersome to navigate without a guide. And while tour operators are allowed to organize trips that meet U.S. requirements like they were before the recent change, an increasing number of travelers are opting to visit by ship.
“The Trump administration tweaks that were made to travel to Cuba impacted the cruise industry very little,” Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said during a panel discussion with other industry leaders in March. “To some degree, we benefitted from that, though we didn’t need the benefit…because ships are full at good prices.”
Preparing for More Cruisers
Thomas, of Florida International University, said cruise lines have been ramping up in a realistic way so far. But he wasn’t sure how much more the destination could handle.
“If they overload the numbers of passengers by bringing in large ships or multiple ships at the same time, it will just be impossible to handle the numbers of people with the facilities they have,” he said. “They are on guided tours, which mean they go to the Hemingway places, music venues, maybe see a farm. It’s fairly limited. It’s not set up for mass tourism.”
Christopher Baker, a travel journalist and tour leader who conducts tours in Cuba, was even more pointed: “I think Cuba is making a huge mistake, for several reasons.”
He said cruise expansion likely seems like the “safest bet” for Cuba to have a stream of income it can rely on.
“However, the past two years has already witnessed a massive increase in U.S. cruise arrivals, and the impact on Havana’s principal touristic sites is evident,” he said in an email. “The colonial plazas of Habana Vieja are already crowded with groups.”
Smaller port destinations such as Trinidad are also started to get overcrowded, Baker said. Cruise lines and observers expect ports beyond Havana will also be expanded over time.
David Lee, owner and founder of private tour company Cultural Cuba, said he and his guides try to time walking tours of Old Havana at times when a ship is not in port to avoid leading their groups into cruise crowds.
“It’s going to get to the point where that won’t be possible,” he said. “Even now, it’s rare that there’s not a ship docked.”
Cruise ships actually mean more business for Lee: This year, after requests from travel agents, the company started offering private shore excursions for passengers who want a smaller group experience.
Still, he said: “I’m concerned. I’ll be honest.”
Lee said he doesn’t know how much can be done over the next six years to prepare, but cautioned that the main attractions in Cuba will need to get “extremely well-organized” to limit access and times when people can visit.
“It’ll hurt if people walk away thinking, ‘We can’t even stand to be in Old Havana, we can’t even move in the streets,'” he said.
For his part, Carnival’s Frizzell said the expansion of the port itself will be a start, but — like any growing destination — there will be much more to do.
“This is an important first step, but there is a much broader infrastructure — buses, taxis, entertainment, restaurants, excursions, etc. — required to support the growth of cruising in any port city,” he said in an email. “Much of this infrastructure grows naturally, but some of it requires additional investment and planning.”