NCL, Oceania and Regent get permission to sail Cuba cruises

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

After waiting for six months, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) finally got the call it had been seeking from the Cuban government allowing it to start cruises to Cuba from Miami, beginning in March.

The authority is temporary and will expire in May. But it covers three brands (Norwegian Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Oceania), the first time a cruise company has won approval to marshal multiple brands in a strategic foray into the Cuban market.

"We are tremendously excited to have all three of our award-winning brands receive approval from authorities in Cuba to offer cruises to Cuba from the United States," said Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio, who was born in Cuba.

"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," he said.

Cruises will sail on the 1,928-passenger Norwegian Sky, the 1,250-passenger Marina and the 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner.

The first Oceania cruise to Cuba will depart Miami on March 7, leaving less than three months to prepare the ship, the itinerary, the crew and to sell the cruises. The Marina voyages will include "many multiple-day calls to allow guests to explore Havana and its environs," the company said.

The Norwegian Sky will sail a series of four-night voyages overnighting in Havana in May, while Seven Seas Mariner will call on Havana during two cruises in April.

Pricing was not released. On Carnival Corp.'s Fathom, the only other cruise line to gain approval to sail between Miami and Cuba, fares start at about $1,900 for a seven-day cruise.

Fathom's ship, the Adonia, is older and much less luxurious than the Marina, which was built in 2011. The Adonia is about the same age as the Norwegian Sky.

It isn't clear why Cuba is giving NCLH such a small window in which to operate. However, Fathom's authority to sail to Cuba will also expire in May.

The opening for NCLH comes at a crossroads in relations between the U.S. and Cuba with both countries going through a transition in top leadership. Some analysts had expected a pause in new business approvals, while others saw an acceleration to take advantage of the Obama administration's open stance towards Cuba.

Cruise tourism to Cuba remains bound by the "people-to-people" framework in place since 1982. That requires shore excursions to be structured to promote exchange activities, such as cultural and humanitarian visits. Norwegian said its cruises would comply with Treasury Department rules.

To sail the new itinerary, Norwegian and Oceania will have to re-accommodate guests already booked. 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 on April 10.

The Norwegian Sky does three- and four-day cruises from Miami that typically attract late bookings.

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

But after the Adonia's authority was granted in March, no other cruise ship approvals followed until now.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is among the cruise companies with applications pending. It plans to use Royal Caribbean International's Empress of the Seas to ply the Florida-Cuba route.

MSC Cruises sails to Cuba but does not market the cruises to U.S. residents. Celestyal Cruises offers seasonal Cuba cruises that Americans can take by flying to either Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica, and enrolling in a people-to-people group program for shore excursions. 


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