On Board Celestyal Crystal—Celestyal Cruises, the Greek-Cypriot-owned line, has long been known for its Greek island-hopping cruises. But as of November it began offering seven-day itineraries on the 1,200-guest Celestyal Crystal, featuring multiple Cuban ports in a market that seems destined to be a hotbed for Caribbean cruising.
While Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings have recently announced their own Cuba itineraries, they will only include stops in Havana as part of longer Caribbean cruises. Carnival’s one-ship Fathom brand offers multiple Cuban ports, but Carnival has announced it will pull that ship out of the market in June and instead add Cuban ports to its other brands.
That would leave Celestyal, which was formerly known as Louis Cruises, as the only line offering a completely Cuba-focused itinerary, with stops at Santiago de Cuba, Havana (nearly two nights), Cienfuegos (gateway to Trinidad), and eventually Punta Frances (at press time the Cuban government still had not granted permission for that port call). The line homeports in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where the ship is provisioned, but passengers can board in Havana as well.
Late last month during a Cuba cruise on Celestyal Crystal, we spoke with Nicolaos Filippidis, Celestyal Cruises director of product development-North America, about his company’s Cuba cruise product and plans for the future.
Filippidis: “We are not concerned about the competition because we are different.”
Filippidis pointed out that Celestyal has nearly five years of experience sailing Cuban itineraries. It began by charting Celestyal Crystal on a seasonal basis for a Canadian tour company, but eventually took over the business itself. Until last year Canadians made up the majority of guests. When the Obama administration relaxed regulations governing Cuba tourism, Celestyal decided to base its ship full-time in the Cuba market as of last November.
Unlike Canadians, its new American customers must adhere to the U.S. State Department’s People-to-People cultural exchange regulations. So Celestyal now offers its own Authentic Cuba Experience program for American guests, who get a certificate at the end of their voyage stating they have followed the U.S. regulations.
Much of Celestyal’s onboard product adheres to those regulations or reflects a Cuban ambience. The line has hired Cubans as entertainers for its onboard shows, many of which reflect Cuban themes. It also has hired waiters and crew under an agreement with the Cuban government, and serves Cuban cuisine, cooked by Cuban chefs, as part of the authentic experience. A professor from the University of Havana gives onboard lectures on Cuban history and culture nearly every day, including everything from revolutionary history to how rum and cigars are made.
Filippidis says Celestyal is “doing very well with bookings for the winter months…and business is picking up for summer months.” In Canada, 70% of the business comes through tour operators, but in the U.S. market, tour operators represent only a small percentage so far. Many U.S. customers are coming from companies that market directly to consumers, such as Friendly Planet and Legendary Journeys, and from tour operators like Globus, which sells only through agents.
But a high percentage of U.S. business (40%) comes directly through travel agents, and Filippidis is trying to grow that by adding to his sales team. He also hopes to generate more travel-agent business by offering higher commissions and bonuses. Celestyal began offering commission at 8%, but raised that to 10%; now 12% is the minimum, up to 15%.
Because of the all-inclusive nature of the cruise, agents earn commission on almost everything onboard, including shore excursions and any alcoholic-drink packages they sell in advance. They even get commission on the mandatory medical coverage required by the Cuban government (costing $48 per person). Agents who book any extra shore excursions in advance, such as the Tropicana nightclub visit or the Classic Cuban Car tour, also get commission of 15% on the cost of roughly $100 per person for each program.
So what will happen as more U.S. cruise brands enter the Cuba market? Filippidis says for the immediate future Celestyal will be able to offer ports in Cuba beyond just Havana, including Santiago and Cienfuegos. Eventually, he predicts, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian will invest money to increase the depth of those harbors so larger vessels can enter, but that will take time. In the meantime, Celestyal will press its advantages.
Filippidis points out that Cuba remains an attractive cruise destination even if the incoming administration of U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump takes a harder line. Major U.S. carriers like Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue have all begun flights to Cuba at attractive fares, and it will be a challenge to roll back such gains. It’s also still very difficult to get good hotels in Cuba, as the country continues to develop its infrastructure, so cruise ships can provide guests with better accommodations in multiple ports.
And even if the Trump administration ends the people-to-people cultural exchange requirements, or eliminates the 12 categories of U.S. visitation permitted by the Obama administration, “we will find a way to comply and bring Americans to Cuba,” says Filippidis. Celestyal will continue to focus on its four pillars—destination, cuisine, entertainment and cultural experience—no matter what happens.
Indeed, Filippidis says Celestyal is tentatively planning to replace Celestyal Crystal in the Cuba market by 2019 with the 2,300-guest Celestyal Majesty, which has a similar displacement but additional passenger capacity. That ship, currently chartered to Britain’s Thomson, will return to the Celestyal fleet in 2018.
“We are not concerned about the competition because we are different,” Filippidis says. “They are going to come in and most of them will do a day or two in Havana. We’re a different product…and we offer a different experience.”