Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cruising To Cuba: Kevin Griffin

by Kevin Griffin
Last week, as a result of a number of meetings in Canada that were arranged through the Vatican, President Obama surprised the world by announcing that after more than half a century, the United States would resume diplomatic relations with Cuba. Today, we have a look at what’s been happening in the cruise business in Cuba. Meanwhile, Costa Cruises’ Costa Celebration arrived in Freeport last Thursday to replace the damaged Bahamas Celebration on the Palm Beach-Freeport route. Arriving in port the same week was the S F Alhucemas, a full-hulled replacement for the Fort Lauderdale-Freeport catamaran ferry. Both services will offer cruise and stay packages in conjunction with resort hotels in Grand Bahama, all backed by a $3 million advertising campaign by the Bahamian Government.

Cruising To Cuba

Since the Cuban Revolution, more than a half-century ago, American bans on citizens travelling to Cuba and US-based companies trading with Cuba have prevented US-based cruise lines from developing this largest island in the Caribbean as a destination. Under present US law, any ship calling on Cuba is not allowed to make a return call on the US for a period of six months after visiting Cuba.

Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Company (America’s “P&O”) ran
a three-times-a-week service between Miami and Havana
But with President Obama’s announcement last week that the United States was renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba, this is all about to change.

The present trade embargos that have been impeding commercial relations will no doubt eventually follow.

Before the ban, cruise lines had called primarily at Havana and Santiago de Cuba. The Florida-based Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Company (America’s “P&O”) ran a three-times-a-week service between Miami and Havana, leaving Miami every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with its 400-berth Florida.

The Monday and Wednesday sailings accommodated round trip cruisers, who would get a full day in Havana.

After the ban, the Florida went into the Miami-Nassau trade but the Peninsular & Occidental Steamship Company was gone within a few years, as was the West India Fruit & Steamship Company, which had been running the train ferries between West Palm Beach and Havana, and had counted among its passengers the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The last passenger ship to leave Havana for the US, in September 1962, was the City of Havana, and for more than a half-century only European ships have called at Cuban ports.

The City of Havana took 287 passengers, 237 of whom were Cubans with US residency certificates and the rest employees of the US State Department. Since then, cruise ships have not sailed from the US to Cuba.

Valtur Prima
In recent years, it was Costa Cruises that began cruising from Havana with the 489-berth Costa Playa in 1995. But when Carnival Corporation bought a half share in Costa in 1997, the Cuban cruises had to be dropped. Carnival was based in the US and prohibited from trading with Cuba, and the Costa Playa was sold in 1998.

Costa had gone further than just basing a ship in Havana, however. It had to dispose of a half interest in a joint venture it had started with the Cuban Government to operate cruise ship terminals in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Isla de la Juventad, This new terminals company had been working with fourteen cruise lines, primarily from the UK, France and Germany.

Festival Cruises’ Mistral
Another attempt to run cruises from Havana was made by Italian tourism group Valtur in 1999-2000, using the 540-berth Valtur Prima. Festival Cruises took her over in 2002 and renamed her Caribe. For a while, Festival also used its own 1,200-berth Mistral, built in 1999, on a seasonal basis from Havana.

In 2004, however, Festival went under and the Caribe was withdrawn. She sails today as Portuscale’s Azores.

Also in 1999, Airtours, a UK company, began operating cruises that called on Cuba, with its 1,450-berth Sunbird, the largest cruise ship yet to call on Havana, setting a record when she arrived in Havana with 1,414 passengers on New Years Day 2003. But Airtours got out of the cruise business and the Sunbird now trades as the Celestyal Olympia for Louis Cruises.

Airtours’ Sunbird
Spain’s Pullmantur Cruises began a series of cruises from Havana in late 2004, with its 752-berth Holiday Dream, but had to cancel the program in 2006 when it came under the control of US-based Royal Caribbean Cruises.

As part of the deal, the Spanish line had to terminate the employment of 230 Cuban crewmembers working on its ships. As Cubans were not eligible to work for a US-controlled company they were let go. About half the Holiday Dream’s passengers had come from Spain, with the rest from Latin America. In 2005, Cuba had seen 102,440 cruise passengers arrive on 122 calls, but in 2007 this dropped by 90%, to just 11,000 passengers on 23 calls.

In January 2011, another UK company, Thomson Cruises caused a stir when its 1,506-berth Thomson Dream became the largest ship yet to call on Havana. The former Costa Europa, she has been scheduled for a number of Havana cruises every winter since.

Meanwhile, a Canadian organization called Cuba Cruise started up in 2013 and is now in its second season of weekly Round Cuba cruises from Havana, using the 966-berth Louis Cristal.

The cruise includes calls on four of Cuba Cruises’ six regularly scheduled ports, Montego Bay, Cienfuegos, Isla de la Juventad and Havana. Departing from Montego Bay or Havana, the Louis Cristal season will run from December through March 2015. This year, a weekly charter flight also been added from Toronto to Havana.

Thomson Dream
Other callers on Cuban ports have included Aida Cruises, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Peter Deilmann, Phoenix Reisen, Plantours, Saga, Star Clippers, Swan Hellenic, Thomson Cruises, Variety Cruises and Voyages of Discovery.

The 1,708-berth Arosa Blu, now P&O Australia’s Pacific Jewel, appears to have been the largest cruise ship among these to have visited Havana, having called before P&O Princess was owned by Carnival Corp & plc.

Indeed, Variety Cruises’ 49-berth Panorama is undertaking a special February cruise to commemorate visits by Winston Churchill to Cuba in 1895 and 1946. It was of course in Havana that Churchill acquired his taste for Cuban cigars.

Just one American-based ship, Semester at Sea’s Explorer, has visited Cuba in recent years. Last month, she brought 624 US students and their 43 professors to Havana under a special educational license.

Shipping routes between the US and Cuba actually began to reopen many years ago. In March 2001, Crowley Liner Services of Jacksonville, was granted a licence to carry eligible commodities to Cuba in weekly service from Port Everglades and Jacksonville to Havana, a city of 3.7 million people.
One of these cargo ships actually carried a few passengers but US citizens are not allowed.

When American main line cruise ships do return, this island country of 289 beaches stands to be very good cruising ground. If a small island like Cozumel can attract 2.5 million cruisers, then there is a huge scope for Cuba, with eleven potential cruise ports. And it won’t be just large ships. Small ships and sailing ships too will want to be able to take advantage of Cuba’s huge coastline.

The three-masted sail cruiser Panorama
Cuba expects more than 200 cruise ship arrivals at various ports on the island this winter. The season kicked off last month and will run through April 2015.

In 2013, the island welcomed about 2.85 million foreign tourists, with Canada being in the lead at over a million, followed by the United Kingdom and Germany. About 600,000 Americans also visited last year under present restrictions, well up from the 245,000 that visited in 2007.

Eventually, shore-based infrastructure that will allow cruise and stay packages will follow new cruise port and terminal developments. There is berthing space for five or six cruise ships now in Havana, and while many European ships have been calling on Cuban ports, the real expansion will come with an eventual American return.

According to Arnold Donald, ceo of Carnival Corp & plc, eleven ports around Cuba could handle ships belonging to the various Carnival fleets. However, there are size restrictions and Donald reports that Havana, for example, could not take big vessels. He adds that Havana has a relatively shallow draft and cannot be dredged because of a tunnel.

Cuba – The Catedral de San Cristobal in Havana
In fact, Havana has a useable draft of 35 feet, which is adequate for most cruise ships.

The Queen Mary 2, the world’s largest ocean liner, draws 32 ft 6 in, while Carnival’s largest ship, the 3,646-berth Carnival Dream draws 26 ft 2 in.

Even the world’s largest cruise ship, the 5,408-berth Oasis of the Seas, draws only 30 feet, so Donald must have in mind other limitations, possibly to do with terminal facilities and maximum length of berthing.

One person who will no doubt be watching closely is Frank del Rio, chairman of Prestige Cruise Holdings in charge of Oceania and Regent. Del Rio was born in Cuba and grew up there until almost the age of seven, when his parents fled the country after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

The new cruise invasion will see millions of Americans coming in peace this time.

As for del Rio’s intentions, he once stated that he had a desire to see one of Oceania’s new ships christened in the harbour in Havana. Maybe it will be a Regent ship instead.

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