Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio has been seeking permission for his U.S.-based cruise ships to dock in Cuba for over a year. On Dec. 7, the Cuban-born Del Rio was called to Havana to sign agreements that finally enable all three of the company's brands to sail there next year. He spoke with senior editor Tom Stieghorst about the process.
Q: Were you aware when you were down there that the other cruise lines had also been approved?
Frank Del Rio
A: I was pulling into the terminal building where the signing ceremony was taking place, and as I was pulling up with my driver and my team, [Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. president and COO] Adam Goldstein was walking out with his team and we exchanged pleasantries as we always do, congratulated each other and had a good laugh about it.
Q: So you almost had a CLIA quorum?
A: Adam even mentioned that. He said, "Frank, I understand there's a CLIA meeting today," so that was one of the reasons we had a good laugh.
Q: What building were you in and who were your Cuban counterparts?
A: Oh, there's too many to mention, and they may not want us to mention them, but the ceremony took place at the terminal building where the cruise ships actually tie up. It's a very nice building. As I told the officials there, I think that terminal facility is as nice a facility as any in the world, certainly the premier one in the Caribbean basin and Central America that I've been to, at least.
Q: Do you plan to visit other ports besides Havana?
A: We do, but not in this first round that covered 10 sailings of the three brands through May 31.
Q: Do you have any insight as to why the Cubans acted now?
A: I don't. I think one could speculate. Is it because Fathom pulled out? Is it because of the rhetoric around president-elect Trump's views on Cuba? It could hypothetically mean that after some time Cuban authorities felt comfortable with additional cruise lines. I didn't ask. I don't really care. I'm just happy as all can be that we're finally in.
Q: Will this be too much at once? Is there anything that concerns you about the infrastructure arrangements?
A: No, on both counts. Because of the infrastructure limitations, the maximum number of vessels in Havana at any given point in time are two: a mid-size vessel like a Sky or a Marina, for example in our case, and one smaller ship, like an Oceania R ship or Regent Mariner. So the number of cruise guests who can be in Havana at any given time is in the 2,500 to 2,700 range. Havana's a large city. Cuba handles over 3 million tourists a year. So I don't see that as a burden whatsoever.
Q: Will your shore-excursion department plan the people-to-people program? Do you have someone in Cuba that can help?
A: Both. I don't see the shore excursions that we would offer in Cuba to be significantly different than the ones we provide when we go to any major historical metropolitan area. Whether it's Rome or Istanbul or St. Petersburg, Russia, our target customer, especially for the upscale brands, isn't going to the beach when they go to the Greek islands; they aren't necessarily going to the beach when they go to Hawaii. They're looking for experiences, they're looking for cultural exchanges, they're looking to visit museums and things of that nature. That's a lot of what Havana has to offer.