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Point of View. Cuban tourism: the next wave

This year, an estimated 172,000 tourists will come via nine ships from eight U.S.-based cruise lines. Photos: TTC

By Chabeli Herrera, Reading Eagle

Havana was exploding in yanqui frenzy. Seven hundred Americans streamed across its streets one steamy May 2016 morning on an expedition of rediscovery. They were the first to arrive via sea since John F. Kennedy was president.

The wave of change was crashing over Cuba.

For passengers on this historic voyage, the visit included hours of tours through the city’s highlight reel. Dinner at a private Cuban restaurant, “un paladar.” Rides in classic – Cubans would call them rustic – 1950s cars, “los almendrones.” Strolls through the centuries-old Spanish squares of La Habana Vieja.

But for Miami cruise expert Stewart Chiron and his son Bryan, then 13, Cuba’s unique allure really came to life when they walked into a Havana historical powerhouse: el Hotel Nacional.

Built in 1930 by a U.S. firm and U.S. architects, el Nacional was a haven for American mobsters and starlets. It also was the scene of a bloody siege key to the eventual rise of former dictator Fulgencio Batista. A bunker on the grounds dates to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat that eventually prompted Kennedy to sign the Cuba trade embargo that banned most trade and travel between U.S. citizens and the Communist island.

The embargo is still in place. But rules relaxed in 2014 by the U.S. government that allow its citizens to visit for cultural exchanges brought about 615,000 U.S. tourists last year to taste the long-forbidden apple in the Caribbean’s Garden of Eden. This year, an estimated 172,000 tourists will come via nine ships from eight U.S.-based cruise lines.

Until now, other travel sectors, such as airlines and hotels, have struggled to satiate a massive American appetite to see Cuba while dealing with the island’s antiquated infrastructure. Airlines have reduced flights, and hotels have lowered their inflated prices. The cruise lines are expected to face that conundrum too, but to a much lesser degree, because their unique form of accommodation offers a protection from the island’s shortage of modern hotels and efficient highways – for now.

“Everybody knows, both here and there, that there will have to be infrastructure development to support the onward growth,” said Adam Goldstein, president and chief operating officer of Royal Caribbean Cruises, whose lines Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises will sail to Cuba this year. “Those are just the realities of going to a place that is superinteresting and has limitations (and) constraints.”

Over time, Cuba’s restaurants, ports, roads, hotels and other tourist facilities will improve, he believes.

“But all of that is (still) totally in its infancy,” he said.

In the travel boom spurred by former President Barack Obama’s 2014 announcement of detente, international hotel companies signed building contracts, and airlines scrambled to earn a chunk of the 110 available daily flight slots. U.S. arrivals in Cuba ballooned 34 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief negotiator with the U.S. Hotel rates soared between 100 percent and 400 percent, with rooms previously priced at $150 per night skyrocketing to $650, according to New York-based tour operator Insight Cuba. American Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit and others started operating daily flights to 10 cities, including airports that hadn’t welcomed U.S. airlines in decades.

As the dust has started to settle, hotel rates have normalized. Airlines that overshot demand for Cuba are cutting back on routes and using smaller planes. The reason: Cuba can be comparatively expensive, and traveling there is sometimes cumbersome.

The average round-trip airfare for Cuba from the Miami area was about $342 in February, according to data from Airlines Reporting Corp. While less than the Caribbean round-trip average that month of $594, the fare is relatively high for travel to an island that has a limited number of hotel rooms: only 64,231 in 2015, according to a December Florida International University report on tourism in Cuba, or about 10,000 more than in Miami-Dade, meaning that travelers may be hard pressed to find accommodations in their budget.

But many of those challenges don’t exist on a cruise ship. So while airlines have cut back, cruise lines have pushed forward, adding itineraries through the end of the year. By the end of 2017, eight U.S. lines – seven based in Miami – will offer Cuba itineraries. Sailings aboard Carnival Corp.’s pioneering Fathom, which inaugurated U.S. cruise service, will be discontinued after June, but only because demand for its every-other-week trips to the Dominican Republic didn’t match the strength of its Cuba component.

“The cruise industry is pretty well-contained, so we bring our own food, we bring our own garbage disposal systems, we want to leave as little footprint as possible but add to the economic prosperity that tourism overall brings,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which will sail to Cuba on all three of its lines: Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas.

Ships also bring their own accommodations, skirting hotel infrastructure limitations, and set up the excursions to ensure travelers follow U.S. guidelines. The trips are paid for ahead of time. (Hotel rentals and all purchases on the island are cash transactions.)

“There’s less hoops people have to go through,” said Debbie Fiorino, vice president of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based travel agency CruiseOne/Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc. “You don’t have to worry if everything in Cuba is built up.”

That’s why Olga Cormier, who lives in Miramar, Fla., is visiting Cuba via a ship. The avid cruiser, who is of Cuban heritage, has plans for a fall trip on Norwegian Cruise Line’s 2,004-passenger Norwegian Sky, one of the largest American ships sailing to the island, because the ship has an overnight stay in Havana.

On the wall behind Del Rio’s desk in his Miami office are two large, slightly yellowed, black-and-white photographs of cruise ships entering Havana Harbor in the 1930s. The space next to it is blank, ready to welcome an image shot in March, when Oceania’s Marina sailed into Havana.

“I’ve said for many years that in my upper right hand drawer there are itineraries ready to go and they were ready the day I launched Oceania back in 2003,” said Del Rio, who emigrated from Cuba in 1961 at age 6.

That was the same year American cruise ships stopped calling in Cuba. Then, thanks to financial support from the Soviet Union, Cuba stopped relying on tourism. That was in stark contrast with the 1950s, when cruising to Cuba from the U.S. was a staple, said Christopher Baker, a Cuba expert and travel writer.

Then in 2014, some European lines began calling in Cuba on their weekly winter sailings, Baker said. Those included Greek line Variety Cruises, French lines Le Ponant and Club Med, Swiss line MSC and British line Noble Caledonia.

The small ships of those European lines have “not put undue stress” on Havana, Baker said. The port there features a modest terminal and space for a medium-sized cruise ship.

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