In early 2016 the cruise industry buzz was all about Carnival Corp's Fathom, the new social-impact cruise brand that was poised to begin sailing to Cuba. It would be the first U.S.-based line to call at the destination in decades.
Plenty of fanfare accompanied the launch last July, but its story was short-lived; Fathom cruises proved a surprisingly tough sell to consumers and the brand later this spring will suspend sailings and morph into a series of volun-tourism excursions for other Carnival brands.
Fast forward one year, though, and most of the major cruise companies have finally received Cuban government approval to operate cruises to the island nation. Each has committed a ship to visit the destination at various times this year.
The future of Cuba tourism appears rosy, despite the uncertainty surrounding any actions the White House might take to alter access to the destination.
A new survey by Travel Leaders Group, for instance, found that nearly 22% of its leisure travel-focused travel agents have already booked clients for Cuba travel this year and 59% indicated clients have expressed an interest in traveling to Cuba in 2017.
“Based not only on our survey, but also on anecdotal feedback travelers are giving to their travel agents, more Americans are taking advantage of the avenues available to them to legally travel to this once forbidden island that is less than 100 miles from Key West," said Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko.
And yet, some agents are telling TMR that clients remain on the fence when it comes to plunking down a Cuba cruise deposit.
“My clients are still in wait-and-see mode,” said cruise agent Linda Allen, an independent retailer affiliated with Birmingham, AL.-based Brownell Travel.
The immigration process still needs to have the quirks worked out of it, and there's very little tourism infrastructure in place. “From what I can tell, the lines are selling out the spring departures, but there will be a lot of inventory there in the fall. It's just a matter of time before you'll get too many ships doing the same thing. There will be a sweet spot, but my crystal ball isn't telling what that will be,” she said.
Allen noted that Fathom “couldn't even fill one 700-passenger ship.” (Fathom had operated cruises aboard the Adonia, which in June will be transferred back to Carnival's P&O fleet.)
The fine print
There's more to pitching a Cuba cruise than just tempting clients with the promise of tooling around in classic cars, exploring historical sites and watching locals dance the habanera.
Allen said it's crucial that agents and clients understand all of the entry requirements. Posts on her web site, cruisesbylinda.com, explain the myriad rules that come with obtaining a U.S. government-issued people-to-people license, which is required of all Cuba cruise passengers.
“People have to self-certify their [travel schedule] to obtain a license,” she noted, by filling out a form that describes their cultural-exchange-related activities while in Cuba. “And we, as agents, are supposed to keep copies of that on file for five years.”
As Norwegian's Cuba FAQ notes on its web site: “All guests will be self-certifying, which means that they are solely responsible for arranging a full-time schedule of [activities compliant with the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control] ...these activities may include excursions provided by Norwegian or activities arranged by guests themselves.” It provides a link to the government site that dispenses the required form.
The lines typically are assisting with processing passenger visas, which also are required to enter the country, along with a passport, and the standard charge for that service is $75, according to the lines' web sites.
It's really important that travel agents understand those FAQs, Allen said, because a lot of people don't realize what the requirements and the limitations are. “I had a group booked to Cuba on Fathom, and just before final payment was due they said to me, 'Well, we can get off the ship and just do what we want, right?' And the answer to that was, 'No, you can't.' ”
“I think most people, and definitely my clients, are going to want to know that the bugs have been worked out before they're willing to spend their time,” she said.
All hands on deck
The cruise lines, though, are ramping up. Carnival Cruise Line will deploy the 2,052-passenger Carnival Paradise starting in late June for a series of four- and five-day Cuba voyages from Tampa, and these will include an overnight in Havana.
Royal Caribbean International and sister company Azamara Club Cruises also won the go-ahead from the Cuban government, as did Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, upper premium line Oceania and luxury brand Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Oceania's 1,250-passenger Marina will be the first of the company's ships to sail to Cuba, with its initial voyage from Miami scheduled for March 7. The ship will call at Havana as part of a broader Caribbean itinerary, and additional cruises are planned in November and December.
Norwegian Cruise Line will operate 30 sailings to Cuba on the 2,004-guest Norwegian Sky, May through December, and Regent's 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner will offer two Cuba cruises in April.
Royal Caribbean International will launch its Cuba program with a five-night cruise aboard the 1,602-guest Empress of the Seas from Miami in April. Additional sailings, 40-plus in all, will be offered from Tampa through early November.
Also, Viking Ocean Cruises will call at Havana during three Caribbean cruises late in the year aboard the 930-guest Viking Sun.
As for Allen, she's mulling which line to travel with to Cuba this year, so that she can see all the logistics for herself. Undoubtedly, other cruise sellers are looking to do that, too, now that the big cruise lines are all in.
Donna Tunney's Cruise Report alternates on a weekly basis with her Luxury Report. Agents and suppliers can contact her at email@example.com.