After the White House recently announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba after more than 50 years, industries on both sides have been gearing up for the upcoming boom in touristic and economic exchanges. Big players in the cruise industry, such as Carnival Corporation, Pearl Seas Cruises, United Caribbean Lines and Haimark, have already signed up to the race to bring American tourists on Cuban soil aboard their cruise liners.

The first cruises will, however, mark more than just the rehabilitation of a political relationship between the two nations. Due to strict regulations imposed by the Cuban Government on incoming tourism, a new type of ‘social impact’ cruise will be launched, aimed at immersing tourists in the cultural, historic and humanitarian aspects of Cuba.

Under the OFAC People-To-People (P2P) license granted to the US State by the Cuban Government, tourism to the country is confined to twelve criteria of visitation, including educational, cultural, humanitarian, religious and research activities.

Cruise companies have embraced this regulation by introducing a range of ‘cultural voyages’ departing from Miami between February and May 2016. The circuits will include the ports of Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago among their stops, and will see tourists immerse themselves in the local culture via a range of volunteer programmes and organised activities.

While the voyages are now open for booking at hefty prices, cruise applications are still under revision and subject to final approval by the Cuban Government. However, as relations between the US and Cuba strengthen by the day, a vote of approval is expected sometime this autumn.

But how will the opening of a previously walled-up destination impact the wider cruising industry, and is Cuba’s infrastructure prepared to handle the influx of visitors?

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Pent-up demand: cruise liners expect high demand

Cruise ship tourism to Cuba has been soaring to unprecedented levels over the past few years: since 2012, cruise tourism grew five-fold, Cuba’s Transportation Ministry reported in July, with passenger numbers jumping from 6,700 to 37,500. Since the start of 2015, a total of over two million international passengers visited Cuba.

And while closed borders have kept American visitors at bay since 1960, the lifting of the embargo is bound to bring further growth.

“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this will become the number one destination in the Caribbean,” says Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines (UCL), one of the companies currently in talks with Cuba regarding its cruise license application.

The cruise industry is going through a renaissance as operators try to capture new markets.

UCL is already offering a regular ferry service between the two countries, but under a partnership with Haimark they aim to offer longer voyages aboard Haimark’s St Laurent ship, which Nierenberg describes as an “accommodation-transportation type of vessel”.

“Cuba is logistically and geographically the perfect location for cruise itineraries because there isn’t a ship that leaves from a port in Florida and doesn’t go somewhere close to Cuba for any of its itineraries, whether going east or west,” Nierenberg says.

The excitement is echoed by Carnival Corporation’s senior vice president and chief communications officer Roger Frizzell. “Once the embargo is lifted, Cuba is likely to grow quickly as one of the most popular cruise destinations,” he says.

Carnival will be the first major cruise line to travel to Cuba from the US via its newly-launched Fathom brand, which is also offering volunteering cruises to the Dominican Republic.

According to a company spokesperson, “Fathom will send 710 travelers on every trip – thousands of travelers a year – to communities in need, providing tremendous scale that will sustain several ongoing programs. This scale is what will make a major difference in the lives of people and communities, starting with the Dominican Republic. Nothing like this currently exists.”

However, some scepticism arose regarding the advertised level of demand. A survey by US-based agency Travel Leaders Group sampled 3,371 consumers in April 2015 and reported that over 35% of those polled were taking a “wait and see approach” to visiting Cuba once the restrictions are lifted, with only 8.8% reportedly saying that they would go to Cuba immediately. A further 14.9% stated they “would go when they believed Cuba was ready for American tourists”, according to an agency press release.

But industry insiders disagree. Fathom believes that “many people long to make a difference in the world and within themselves, but have no idea where to begin.”

“Globally, great things are happening to address some of the social and environmental needs in the world, but there is far more to be done,” the company said in a statement. “Fathom exists to connect people’s passions and gifts with the needs in the world to help them navigate this complex journey and to unleash the greatness in every person.”

“We will be the number one source of tourism to Cuba someday and when that happens, Americans will bring all their good and bad parts.”

Nierenberg is certain that a strong pull factor for a lot of people will be visiting the place “before it becomes Americanised”.

“We will be the number one source of tourism to Cuba someday and when that happens, Americans will bring all their good and bad parts,” he says. “So there are a lot of Americans, especially in the affluent parts, where people have the money to spend, who are actually saying to themselves: ‘I’d actually like to go to Cuba before everything opens up so I can get a feeling for the real country.'”

“We believe there is pent-up demand for travel to Cuba, but our extensive research also tells us that there is a growing market for this unique type of travel experience that allows our guests to experience rich culture like Cuba, but also enrich themselves and their families and friends by working alongside other volunteers in countries like the Dominican Republic to have a real impact on the lives of the people there,” Frizzell says.

Will infrastructure hold?

While this is cause for excitement within the industry, concerns are also growing regarding the local port and hotel infrastructure and its ability to accommodate both the ships and the huge numbers of visitors.

“The cruise industry has ships from 100 to 5,000 passengers. Are these ports ready for the big mega-ships? Absolutely not,” says Nierenberg. “I don’t even think you could fit the largest vessel in the port of Havana these days. The major cruise operators are working very closely with the Cuban Government on the development plans of whatever harbour facilities are necessary.”

One very good move, he explains, was Cuba’s initiative to move its commercial shipping to Mariel, a $900m free-trading zone that opened last year 50km away from Havana, while leaving Havana harbour “pretty much entirely for passenger traffic”.

Frizzell admits that Carnival will need to assess the country’s port infrastructure to determine what developments might be required, but the company believes the current port infrastructure will be able to accommodate many of its ships.

While some cruise lines are slowly becoming greener, but it seems the industry still has a long way to go.

“Cuba has not had anybody spend money on its tourism infrastructure for ships in 50 to 60 years,” Nierenberg explains. “It’s very important to Cuba for when they start the ferry service to have people […] who know how to develop new destinations, who are comfortable in dealing with ports that have not had a service like this in 60 years. They need people who understand how difficult that is to do.”

Over the past 40 years, Nierenberg has developed destinations in the Bahamas and Texas, as well as Cape Canaveral, the second-largest port in the world for cruise customers, and Cozumel, Mexico, currently the number one destination for cruise ships.

“When I went to these places in the beginning, they had nothing; they didn’t even have a pier to anchor,” he says. “So understanding how difficult that is, is a big part of the success, and I stressed to our friends in Cuba that no matter who you choose, please make sure that they’ve done this before, several times, and in spite of that, they have a great deal of respect for how difficult this is. It’s very important for Cuba to do that.”

What’s in it for Cuba: creating long-term benefits

As Cuba is on course to become the next main attraction in the Caribbean, its potential to shape and benefit the US cruising industry is undeniable.

But the new tourism influx is also hoped to bring economic, educational and social benefits for the country and its people.

Aboard Fathom, for example, each day ashore will be programmed with at least eight hours of permitted activity for all 710 passengers, the brand says.

“The overarching objective of the Fathom experience in Cuba is to support cultural exchange and economic growth for the Cuban people,” the company said. This will be achieved through a range of sample activities, such as visits to local elementary schools, tours of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, organized discussions with local preservation experts about the country’s architectural history and private conversations about the entrepreneurial climate in Cuba, among others.

While there is no doubt such interactions will certainly open up dialogue and help build a bridge of understanding between the US and Cuba, UCL has also been focusing on creating a lasting impact by supporting the local economy and education.

“There is no greater benefit than to get them economically stable and enable them to support themselves.”

“The idea behind this is to benefit the people,” says Nierenberg. “There is no greater benefit than to get them economically stable and enable them to support themselves. The cruise industry can be a big help because we can do that much faster than they can build hotels.”

Over the past two years, UCL has been working closely with the University of Havana’s department of tourism education, which currently suffers from limited resources due to the prolonged embargo. As a result, UCL is sponsoring a Maritime Academy at the University of Havana, “where Cuban nationals will be trained to work on ships, everything from captains to hotel executives, creating jobs and training for them to work on not only our ships, but ships all over the world.”

“We’ve really become a part of the culture there instead of just a business trying to make money,” Nierenberg explains.
With a host of other collaborations on the planning board, such as interchange programmes between colleges in Florida and Havana and complimentary ferry transportation for the universities’ students, UCL hopes for a strong long-term relationship with its “closest neighbour”.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes countries grow together,” Nierenberg concludes. “There isn’t any reason not to have a constructive relationship with them and the generations in the future, the ones that are currently in the colleges and in the university system.

“We can make them feel good about each other and open up the doors and that’s the best way to really build for the future.”