Cuba rushes to allow cruises from U.S. as Trump era looms

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The Norwegian Sky will sail Cuba cruises from Miami.
The Norwegian Sky will sail Cuba cruises from Miami.

In a move that could "reinvigorate the entire Caribbean," Cuba, after demurring for most of the year, has opened the floodgates to cruise tourism, at least for the first five months of 2017.

In a burst of activity following the death of former leader Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Cuba will allow at least six more cruise brands to visit Cuban ports on voyages from the U.S. next year.

The remarkable surge has some travel agents worried that it will quickly prove to be too much of a good thing for the infrastructure-challenged island.

"The big concern is can the infrastructure really handle it or will we overwhelm with our presence?" said Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel.com in Los Angeles.

Cuba apparently rushed to stamp the long-pending requests "approved" before the January inauguration of Trump, who has suggested he might cancel new U.S. business ventures in Cuba unless better terms are renegotiated.

At a news conference in Havana, according to the Reuters news agency, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban foreign ministry's director of U.S. affairs, said the country is working on 12 more accords with U.S. firms and that Cuba hopes to sign half of them by Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20.

While declining to comment on Trump directly, Vidal said the results achieved under the Obama administration's opening to Cuba "are backed by the majority of the Cuban population and U.S. citizens."

According to Reuters, Vidal said Cuba was willing to continue improving relations but "within the respect of the existing differences and without having to make any kind of concession to the principles in which Cuba firmly believes."

As for the cruise companies that have been seeking a toehold in Cuba, Christmas arrived early on Dec. 7.

The biggest winner could be Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), which got the green light for all three of its cruise brands to sail from Florida to Cuba, including luxury line Regent Seven Seas Cruises, upper-premium line Oceania and its flagship contemporary brand, Norwegian Cruise Line.

Also getting approval after a long wait was Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which will offer Cuba voyages on its Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises brands next year.

Pearl Seas Cruises, a single-vessel line, also indicated that its Pearl Mist had received the go-ahead from Cuban authorities.

Together, it will mean at least six ships from the U.S. docking at Havana and other Cuban ports, which so far this year have only welcomed one vessel every other week, the Adonia, of Carnival Corp.'s Fathom brand.

The approvals appear to have been made on a probationary basis. Norwegian said its permission extends through May, which is also when the Adonia's one-year permission to sail to Cuba expires.

The other lines didn't address how long they can sail to Cuba or said they did not know if there was any time limit.

Among the first of the newly approved ships to arrive in Havana will be the Pearl Mist, which has a series of 10-day cruises from Miami/Fort Lauderdale pre-sold, the first departing on Jan. 17.

The 200-passenger Pearl Mist won't strain Cuba's infrastructure much. It has six stops planned in addition to Havana, including Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel Castro was recently interred. The cruises end April 29, but they are scheduled to pick up again in October.

The only other cruise with a firm date attached so far is the March 7 departure of the Oceania ship Marina, whose 1,250 passengers will be a much bigger contingent than either the Adonia or the Pearl Mist.

Oceania was founded in 2002 by Frank Del Rio, now the CEO of NCLH, who has said several times he is determined to sail one of its ships back into the harbor in Havana, where he lived until moving to the U.S. at the age of six.

"This is truly a dream come true for me, and I cannot wait for our loyal guests to experience the sights and sounds of my hometown of Havana and get to know its rich culture and its warm and welcoming residents," Del Rio said.

Also bound for Havana will be the Norwegian Sky, a 2,004-passenger ship that currently does three- and four-night cruises to the Bahamas from Miami. Norwegian said the Sky will offer a series of four-night voyages, overnighting in Havana in May, while the 700-passenger Regent Seven Seas Cruises ship Seven Seas Mariner will visit Havana on two cruises in April.

Norwegian's application to sail to Cuba has been pending for at least a year. At a July news briefing onboard Regent's new Seven Seas Explorer, Del Rio said he was "literally waiting on a phone call for the final, final approval" from Cuba.

To sail the new itinerary, Norwegian and Oceania will have to re-accommodate guests already booked on other itineraries. The March 7 Marina departure is currently listed as a 14-day cruise to ports in the western Caribbean, Central America and Colombia. The ship was scheduled to leave for Europe April 10.

Royal Caribbean's entry into Cuba is likely to come on the Empress of the Seas, which at 1,580 passengers is one of the larger ships to call in Cuba but also the smallest in the Royal fleet. It was renovated early this year at a cost of $50 million and has been sailing four- and five-night Caribbean and Bahamas itineraries while Royal waited for Cuba's approval.

With the exception of the Pearl Mist cruises, which start at $7,810 per person, none of the newly authorized cruises have prices attached yet. Miami-Cuba cruises on the Adonia are currently listed as starting at $1,900.

One cruise line with Cuba on its itinerary that does not so far have Cuba's permission to go is Viking Ocean Cruises. A spokesman said there has been no news.

"As our first port call in Havana will be in November 2017, we are currently in the midst of the permitting process," a Viking statement said.

If the fleet of ships steaming for Havana becomes a permanent fixture, the consequences could rejuvenate the whole Caribbean region, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said.

Speaking onboard the Carnival Vista to more than 800 travel agents at the CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. annual conference, Donald commented, "It will absolutely reinvigorate the entire Caribbean."

Maryanov, of All-Travel, said he's seen no flagging in demand for Cuba as a destination.

"It's very exciting," Maryanov said. "We've obviously been waiting for this for quite some time. I think it will do really well for select 2017 Caribbean sailings."

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