With Joe Biden elected as the next U.S. president, cruise lines can look forward to the very real possibility that his administration will restore the Obama-era policies of Cuba travel, including the resumption of cruises.
In April, Biden said that if elected he would reverse Trump's Cuba policies, which he said had "inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights"; he added that Americans going to Cuba are the "best ambassadors for freedom" on the island.
As recently as last week, a top Biden foreign policy adviser told Reuters that Biden would "reverse the decisions that are separating families, limitations on family travel and remittances" if he won the White House.
Cruising set sail for Cuba in 2016 -- the first from the U.S. in 50 years -- with a lot of fanfare. And during the three years Cuba cruises were operating the island became a marquee destination, and entire itineraries were built around calls there. The largest cruise brands, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line, offered sailings to Havana, while smaller, more upscale lines created Cuba-intensive itineraries visiting secondary cities such as Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. By 2018, nearly 20 cruise lines were carrying some 800,000 passengers there annually.
But In June 2019, the Trump administration reversed the rules. The ban on cruising took effect so suddenly that ships en route to the island were forced to turn around. Booked cruises were not grandfathered in as they were for tours, either. As such, the cruise lines overnight had to scramble to reroute ships.
A year ago, it was the cessation of Cuba operations that were among the cruise industry's biggest financial headaches. Royal Caribbean Group's CFO said at the time that the elimination of Cuba itineraries could cost it as much as $73 million; Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings said last September that the ban had cost it $47 million.
I asked Tom Popper, who recently stepped down as president of Insight Cuba after 20 years and is now an industry consultant, how long it would take, in theory, for Biden to reinstate Cuba cruising. Just as Trump ended cruising overnight, Biden could restore it as quickly, Popper said.
"All forms of vessels, including private boats and cruise ships, could be authorized from Miami to Cuba via a directive from President Biden to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control" and other regulatory agencies, he said. "Cruises to Cuba could start as soon as they are able. President Obama provided this directive, which allowed for vessels to sail to Cuba, and President Trump simply undid the directive. It does not need approval from Congress."
And once in port, would Trump-era rules restrict what cruisers can do in port?
"All disembarking passengers would have to comply under one of the 12 license categories regarding legal travel to Cuba," he said. "Most likely, all passengers would comply under the 'Support for the Cuban People' provision, which doesn't differ too much from the types of activities that were required under Obama.
"It would be up to the cruise operators and ground operators to provide shore excursions that are compliant, which is no problem. However, a Biden administration could loosen the requirements for both cruise ships and land operators, making compliance easier and simpler. In the end, a passenger booking a cruise wouldn't have to worry, provided they stayed with the planned itinerary."
Finally, I asked him if he thought cruise companies would take another chance on Cuba, given what they invested and then lost when the laws changed.
"The cruise industry will definitely return to Cuba and make any necessary investment," Popper said. "First, the cruises were hugely popular. Second, a return would present far [fewer] unknowns, since the cruise companies have experience sailing to the island.
"While the overnight cessation of cruising to Cuba by the Trump administration in 2019 was disruptive and abrupt, the cruise industry is used to shifting itineraries and ports-of-call on a moment's notice due to weather, natural catastrophes, political unrest or otherwise."
Of course, one hurdle to the resumption of cruising to Cuba is not longstanding politics, logistics or the industry's appetite for the destination: It's the pandemic.
"All said, it will be important for the U.S. to get its infection rate under control," Popper said. "With soaring cases, small islands especially in the Caribbean might be hesitant to place their populations at risk."