Claire Boobbyer, The Telegraph
The number of Cuba itineraries and Caribbean cruises with port calls at Havana (on the Atlantic coast), Cienfuegos and former capital Santiago de Cuba (both on the Caribbean coast) has soared in the last two years.
Between them major cruise lines offer more than 650 sailings. Now, Cuba has signed an agreement with the world’s largest independent cruise port operator to ramp up capacity at the cruise terminal in Havana.
The port, on the edge of Unesco-protected Old Havana, will triple its cruise ship berths from two to six by 2024, after an agreement with Istanbul-based Global Ports Holding. “Cuba has been a tremendous success for Norwegian,” said a spokesperson for Norwegian Cruise Line. “Havana is a fabulous destination and guest feedback has been tremendously positive.”
A late arrival to the multibillion-dollar Caribbean cruising industry, Cuba is making up for lost time. In 2017, 397,520 passengers visited the island compared with 37,513 in 2015. In May tourism minister Manuel Marrero Cruz announced that Cuba had received more than 500,000 cruise passengers so far this year, with 700,000 expected by the end of 2018.
The first US cruise ship to enter Cuban waters since 1977 sailed into Havana in May 2016 after Barack Obama eased US trade-embargo rules on travel to Cuba for US citizens. Passenger ships continue to operate there despite US president Donald Trump’s tightened sanctions, which came into force last November.
Locals have mixed feelings about Havana’s cruise boom. “The benefits of cruise tourism come with a good infrastructure of tours, restaurants, nightlife and events – all of which Cuba has – with the potential to develop more,” says entrepreneur Ariel Causa, who runs foodie tours.
Sandra Expósito, co-owner of the privately owned hotel Malecón 663, says she prefers authentic, intimate travel that brings visitors closer to the Cubans and their culture. “Mass cruise tourism doesn’t encourage this.”
As Havana’s cruise port operation is set to grow, and Cuba opens up more ports of call, a new type of cruise is pulling in to its palm-flecked beaches, historic towns and tobacco lands. This autumn the world’s first discovery yacht, Scenic Eclipse, will sail to Cuba; in February, luxury yacht SeaDream launches its first Cuba trip; and last autumn, while in Havana, Richard Branson and Virgin Voyages chief executive Tom McAlpin raised hopes that Cuba would be one of the first ports of call for Virgin’s new cruise line, launching in 2020.
The destinations where cruise passengers outnumber locals
Around 700,000 people visited Cuba on a cruise ship in 2018, a massive increase of 1,766 per cent on the 37,513 that stepped ashore in 2015. But it still some way off the most popular Caribbean destinations for cruise passengers.
The Bahamas, for example, receives almost five million annually, according to UNWTO statistics, while the US Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, St Maarten, Jamaica and Puerto Rico each welcome more than one million.
Remarkably, the island of St Maarten has a population of just over 40,000, which means it gets 41.6 cruise passengers per year for every resident.
Cruising and overtourism
Holidays at sea have never been more popular. A record 27.2m people are expected to take a cruise in 2018, up from 25.8m last year, and just 17.8m a decade ago.
But the rapid growth of the industry has caused tension in dozens of destinations, including Venice, Dubrovnik and Mallorca. Anti-cruise protests have become commonplace in the Italian city, residents of Dubrovnik told Telegraph Travel last year that the industry is “ruining” their home, while overcrowding in Palma de Mallorca – where as many as 500 cruise ships now dock each year, depositing up to 22,000 passengers a day – has led to calls for a cap on visitors.
Cruise ships aren’t the only contributor to overcrowding, of course, but they have come under extra scrutiny. That’s because, besides arriving all at once and creating queues, cruise passengers tend to spend very little money ashore and therefore don’t help the local economy.