Adequate port facilities lacking
Frank Del Rio, founder of Oceania and CEO of parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., speaks with the media in Havana after the Marina’s arrival.
Even if they wanted to, cruise lines couldn't shift massive amounts of business to Havana because of infrastructure constraints. The pier in Havana can accommodate only one midsize and one smaller ship, while a tunnel under the harbor limits the draft of ships coming into Havana Bay.
"So, at least today, Cuba will be a wrinkle in itineraries," Blum said. "It won't be a major game changer."
In the meantime, the opening of Cuba to U.S. cruises has had a couple of surprising side effects.
One was the unexpected choice of Tampa as a gateway for cruises that include Havana. Both Royal's Empress of the Seas and Carnival Cruise Line's Carnival Paradise are departing to Cuba from Tampa, leaving Florida's west coast city serving as many Havana-bound cruise passengers as Miami.
Greg Lovelace, director of marketing and business development for Port Tampa Bay, said the port is more of a drive market than Miami and offers ships a straight, short route south to Havana.
"Our sweet spot in Tampa is the western Caribbean," he said. "Whenever there's a new destination -- which doesn't happen very often -- plopped into your sweet spot, obviously that's a benefit for us."
Tampa also offers a tie to Cuba in its Ybor City neighborhood, which has been a cigar-making center since the turn of the century and is home to the well-known Arturo Fuente brand.
"Whether you're buying cigars there or just seeing the Cuban influence in Ybor City, then you hop on a ship and the next thing you know you're seeing the real Cuba," Lovelace said.
The restored colonial buildings in Old Havana. Cuban port calls are rich with cultural and historical tours to conform to rules regarding Cuba travel. Photo Credit: Robert Silk
With the Empress homeporting in Tampa all summer, Lovelace said, in 2017 the port expects to surpass 1 million passenger movements for the first time.
"We've always talked about extending the season, so to have this summer program is very exciting," he said.
Another unintended consequence of the Cuba opening is to prolong the service life of older ships that might otherwise be in jeopardy of being retired. The Sky is close to 20 years old, while the Empress is approaching 30.
Blum said, "You take a vessel like the Empress of the Seas, which left the Royal Caribbean fleet quite a while ago. I would imagine that if it wasn't for the ship fitting so beautifully in Cuba, the likelihood is that it wouldn't be back in the Royal Caribbean fleet."
The older ships aren't being picked for their age so much as their size, said RCCL's Fain, adding, "The issue with Cuba is that it can only handle the smaller ships, and the older ships tend to be smaller."
At 2,004 passengers, the Sky is the second-smallest vessel in Norwegian's fleet, while the Empress, at a current capacity of about 1,840 passengers, is the smallest Royal Caribbean vessel available.