How Long Until Cruise Ships Sail to Cuba? It Depends
February 18, 2015
(11:50 a.m. EST) — With American travel restrictions to Cuba lessening,
cruise passengers are eagerly awaiting word that their favorite line has
added the long-off-limits island to Caribbean itineraries. So how long
will it take before you see a mainstream cruise ship sail into Havana?
The answer: it depends. With infrastructure issues limiting the size of
ships that could berth in Havana and a travel embargo that still needs
to be overturned by Congress, a quick timeline seems impossible. Yet
with interest among cruise lines and their passengers already high, Cuba
cruising could come quickly for smaller cruise ships, once barriers are
Cruise line CEOs have spoken publicly about their desire to visit Cuba
as soon as possible. In a TV interview, Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Frank
Del Rio said he has itineraries locked in his “upper right hand drawer
ready to go.” “My unfulfilled dream is to be on the bridge of one of my
ships coming into Havana harbor,” he said.
“There’s no question if the legislative embargo is lifted, Cuba is a
tremendous opportunity,” Carnival Corp & plc CEO Arnold Donald told
investors in December. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand to visit Cuba.
It would allow us some very fuel-efficient itineraries. Also, it would
provide new itineraries for those who love to go to the Caribbean.”
While Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., which operates lines including Royal
Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises,
wouldn’t comment on plans, Cruise Critic members reported receiving a
survey from Celebrity outlining potential Cuba itineraries. The trips
range from adding a night in Havana to quick four-, five- and
seven-night Eastern Caribbean voyages from Fort Lauderdale to 11- and
14-night trips that combine Cuba with a traditional Southern Caribbean
cruise from Miami. One suggestion even has a Havana overnight.
The ships that could do these itineraries would be limited in size.
Cruise ships owned by non-American companies have been traveling to Cuba
for years, although they are all considered small (under 1,000
passengers). Before Costa Cruises and Pullmantur were acquired by
Carnival Corp. & PLC and Royal Caribbean Ltd., respectively, both had
homeports in Havana. Among the lines that offer or have Havana as a port
stop: Fred.Olsen Cruise Lines, Thomson Cruises, Noble Caledonia and Star
No line has put itself in a better position for Cuba cruises than the
appropriately named Cuba Cruise. The Canadian-based company launched in
2013 as the only cruise line offering round-Cuba sailings on the
1,200-passenger Louis (Celestyal) Cristal. The company not only calls in
off-the-beaten-path ports as Antilla and Cienfuegos, but it also employs
a large number of Cubans onboard, in a variety of positions including
band members and as stewards and wait staff.
By developing partnerships with nonprofit organizations with “people to
people” licenses, Cuba Cruise has also become the first cruise line to
offer true voyages open to Americans. Since President Obama announced in
December travel restrictions were easing, the company has experienced an
onslaught of inquiries, said Dugald Wells, president and founder of Cuba
“After the first announcement, our web traffic tripled beyond anything
we have ever seen before. It was mostly Canadians booking who want to
get there before McDonalds does,” he explained, referring to the belief
that once restrictions are limited, tourist-geared and American
businesses will swarm into the country, leading to a less authentic
In January when the Obama administration lifted some travel
restrictions, the company’s call center was overwhelmed, Wells said. US
inquiries increased from about 10 percent of the total to 50 percent.
The surge in interest has led Cuba Cruise to consider extending the
season to April and even add another ship: “We are looking at
itineraries and other ships in the Louis fleet to see how we could make
this work,” he said.
Although the story of Cuba Cruise sounds like a case of being in the
right place at the right time, establishing the itinerary took a lot of
work and red tape — and gives insight into the issues larger cruise
lines might face if they establish ports in the communist country.
Wells first visited Cuba in 2009 on the suggestion of his business
partner, Craig Marshall. As is often the way in Cuba, Craig had a friend
who knew someone who was a transport official in charge of ports on the
“(The transport official) said wasn’t it a shame that the cruise
terminal in Havana had been refurbished but no cruise lines were calling
in any more,” Wells said. “Well, that tweaked Craig’s interest. He
called me and I flew down a few weeks later to meet with the port
The meeting wasn’t quite as simple as that: It took more than a month to
get the suitable visas, introductory letters and documentation; things
take a very long time to happen in Cuba and have to pass through a
number of different ministries and sub-ministries. “We had to go through
all the hoops,” he said.
Wells, who has experience launching cruise lines in tough locations such
as the High Arctic and Antarctica, was not fazed by the lack of
infrastructure – more by the red tape.
He then took a two-week road trip around Cuba to work out what ports
could realistically welcome a ship. “The infrastructure is in very bad
condition, but this is not Antarctica — at least there is
infrastructure. We came to the conclusion that this was not insurmountable.”
For a small ship, perhaps. The main limitation on larger ships calling
in at Cuba is their draft (the distance between the waterline and the
bottom of a ship’s hull), Wells said. Quite simply: the ports are too
shallow to accommodate large ships, and many do not directly face the
sea, but are inland, meaning negotiating narrow channels and often
“There are three main challenges with all of these ports:
Maneuverability, depth and dredging and terminal infrastructure,” Wells
explained. “Even in Havana, Louis Cristal takes up the entire length of
The only way round this would be massive private investment by the
cruise lines, to dredge and develop the ports: “The question is, would
it be worth it?” he asked.
In his earnings comments, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald noted that the
shallow draft of the Havana port restricted use to smaller ships. “But
there will be investment in ports and other infrastructure required over
Other options include floating jetties, or tendering. With funding from
Brazil, Cuba is also developing a new port an hour west of Havana called
Mariel, which will primarily deal with container and commercial traffic;
Wells believes this could end up catering to the larger ships.
Even if the embargo is lifted and mainstream lines do start coming to
Cuba, Wells thinks there will be enough demand for all in the
marketplace. “I believe strongly that the kind of product that they [the
mainstream cruise lines offer] will be very different from what we are
doing. We employ locals, we go to ports that large cruise ships simply
could not go into.”
Want to read more about cruising to Cuba? Read our Cuba Cruise Basics,
our Cuba Cruise slideshow and blog posts from a 2014 sailing with Cuba
Cruise. Or talk with Cruise Critic members who have sailed with Cuba
Cruise on our forum).
–By Adam Coulter and Chris Gray Faust, Cruise Critic UK Editor and
Source: How Long Until Cruise Ships Sail to Cuba? It Depends – Various –