Is Trump’s New Cuba Policy "Much Ado About Nothing" for Cruises?

Celestyal Cruises is among the lines - big and small -- that currently sail to Cuba with U.S. passengers. Following the Trump Administration's announcement about changes in Cuba travel policies, the line says there is no change in its ability to accept Americans onboard for Cuba cruises. (Courtesy of Celestyal Cruises)

While U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s new direction on Cuba will cause some changes to certain types of travel to that Caribbean island nation, the assessment of many major cruise companies is that its impact on cruise operations – both for lines sailing from U.S. or foreign ports – should be negligible.

Or, at least that's the view in the initial stages of the new policy. Final regulations are yet to come. For more detail, see Travel Agent's story of last Friday with a Q&A about the U.S. Department of the Treasury process for final regulations. 

People-to-People Travel

From one travel sales group's perspective, “Cuba has proven to be a popular destination among our customers so we are pleased to learn that Americans will continue to be able to experience Cuba by cruise ship and through authorized people-to-people group travel,” said Brad Tolkin, co-chairman/CEO, World Travel Holdings.

The gist of the new rules is that any American traveling to Cuba must meet one of 12 forms of approved travel, as outlined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations.

Typically, cruise voyages and shore excursions already meet those requirements, with shore-side activities falling under the so-called “people to people” travel category. 

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL), parent of Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, said: "Royal Caribbean is pleased there is no impact to any of our cruises to Cuba as announced in the new U.S. policy toward Cuba today. Our guests are already enjoying curated people-to-people experiences under the approved categories of travel.” 

In addition, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said it "hopes that restricting travel anywhere is unnecessary, but we are happy that the industry can continue to sail from the U.S. to Cuba under basically the same criteria that cruise lines have been required to follow."  

Tolkin, whose company represents the CruiseOne, Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc. brands, said 
“the cruise industry is well positioned for this change in policy and we are confident that our customers will continue to find value in their cultural experiences and social interactions with the Cuban people.” 

Cruise lines – big and small – that currently sail or will sail to Cuba this year have invested millions in marketing, promotion, infrastructure and other start-up costs for Cuba cruises.

Cuban Cruising

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, said 70,000 Americans are booked on its future Cuba cruises.

NCLH acknowledged that just a short time ago – prior to Friday’s Trump Administration announcement -- it had been “very concerned about any potential changes, given how popular Cuba itineraries have proven to be with our guests.”

Now, in contrast: NCLH said: “We view this as a win for the cruise industry, our valued guests and travel partners.” 

Last year, Carnival Corporation, parent of Carnival Cruise Line, Costa Cruises, Cunard Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and other brands, was the first major U.S. cruise company in the 21st century to sail into Havana harbor with its Fathom brand. 

While that brand ceased to operate as a stand-alone cruise product a few weeks ago and has returned its one ship, Adonia, to P&O, the Fathom voluntourism concept continues with the activities of Carnival Corp.'s other brands.

Carnival Corp.'s Cuba experience thus far, though, has been very positive, the company said in its Cuba policy change statement, adding that it “looks forward to new cruises being planned for Cuba with Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line.” It's also requested approval for other brands. Holland America will begin sailing to the island in December. 

"We will review the extent of the tightening of the travel rules, but our guests have already been traveling under the 12 approved forms of travel to Cuba since we undertook our historic first cruise to Cuba more than a year ago,” the statement said. 

Reviewing the Specifics 

Carnival Corp., RCCL and NCLH will all continue to review the full and exact scope of the policy changes and any updated regulations during the implementation period which may take several months.

But, at least given what’s known now, the cruise lines are confident the new rules won’t interfere with Americans’ ability to board a ship in Miami, Tampa, Montego Bay, Jamaica, or another port, and sail to Cuba. They also believe their guests will be able to get off for a shore trip in Cuba as long as they participate in activities that fall in the people-to-people category. 

That said, cruisers likely won’t be able to wander off to make purchases at any Cuban government-run spots such as restaurants, hotels or bars, or to take off for the day independently and do anything they want – such as going to a beach or spending a day poolside, particularly if the hotel is owned by a Cuban government entity or receives funding from the Cuban military.  

Havana street scene // Photo courtesy of Celestyal Cruises

Personally in favor of opening up destinations across the globe, including Cuba, is Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network. Initially, at least, he's disappointed in the announcement, which he believes does dampen Americans’ abilities to travel freely. 

“It definitely will limit the flow of U.S. travelers to Cuba, if the only option is a structured, approved, people-to-people group tour,” he believes. But he acknowledges that “until there is an actual government policy in place, and the Cuban government reacts, it’s hard to say how this will fully impact travel to Cuba.” 

OFAC issued this statement: "Following the issuance of OFAC's regulatory changes, travel-related transactions with prohibited entities identified by the State Department generally will not be permitted. Guidance will accompany the issuance of the new regulations."

That said, OFAC also said: "The forthcoming regulations will be prospective and thus will not affect existing
contracts and licenses."

The Big Three

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been very vocal in opposition to the Obama Administration’s Cuba policies and is highly supportive of President Trump's new position on Cuba. Sen. Rubio said the previous policies supported the Castro regime, and not the Cuban people.   

However, Sen. Rubio also represents a state that's home to the "Big Three" U.S.-based cruise companies -- Carnival Corp, RCCL and NCLH, which have a lot of economic muscle.

Collectively, they employ tens of thousands and all have their corporate headquarters in Miami-Dade County, FL. They also operate from PortMiami, Port Everglades, Port Canaveral, JAXPort and the Port of Tampa, with statewide economic impact.  

One high-level executive source within one of the three big cruise companies told us, “yes,” his company had lobbied the Trump Administration about the importance of keeping cruise travel to Cuba flowing, given the economic benefits and jobs involved within the U.S. But he wished to remain anonymous.

He did say there were both individual discussions between his company and the administration, plus the collective industry efforts of CLIA, which noted in its statement that "travel enhances the lives of all people." 

From the cruise industry perspective, though, there's clearly a big sigh of relief that cruise travel is still permitted, even if time ashore becomes more structured for guests. "CLIA Cruise Line Members are pleased for the opportunity to facilitate travel to Cuba that promotes important educational, social and cultural exchanges,” said CLIA's statement. 

“We will work with the Administration to comply with any changes to those and any other regulations that will result from its decision,” said the NCLH statement. “We are also pleased that education travel and travel that supports the Cuban people will continue.”  

“We are delighted our guests will continue to have the opportunity to experience the wonderful culture and incredible history of Cuba along with the warmth and friendliness of the Cuban people through OFAC-compliant shore excursions that support private businesses and the Cuban people, an opportunity that was restricted for over 50 years,” the NCLH statement also said. 

The opening up of Cuba is far more than just business for Frank Del Rio, NCLH president and CEO. He arrived from Cuba with his family as a child, and, unlike Sen. Rubio, Del Rio has been a vocal proponent of cruising and travel as a way to create economic development and make life better for the people of the island.

Del Rio still has relatives in Havana and spoke about his views on Cuba cruising during the annual Cruise360 conference at Port Everglades in April. 

Small Ship Lines Speak Out 

It’s not only big lines, though, who've hoped for the outcome announced Friday. Now in its fourth year of Cuban cruise operations and with a robust cruise itinerary that circumnavigates Cuba, Celestyal Cruises told Travel Agent it’s already in compliance with the Trump administration changes regarding travel to the island.   

In a statement, Nicholas Filippidis, Celestyal’s director of business development in North America, said: “For U.S. travelers, a comprehensive people-to-people itinerary is offered by Celestyal Cruises that meets U.S. legal requirements for a full-time program of educational and cultural exchange activities.  

“Special shore excursions have been designed to comply with OFAC regulations while providing opportunities for personal discovery and enrichment traveling as part of the people-to-people group on each sailing…Celestyal Cruises provides certification attesting to the participation of American citizens in the approved People-to-People group program."

He said that American passengers can simply book their cruise, either with a travel agent or on the line’s website, and register for the People-to-People group  program with details at this link.

Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic said it’s reviewed the new U.S. policy changes toward Cuba announced by the Trump administration, and “indications are that our Cuba program can go forward unchanged. Our program is — and has always been — in compliance with the educational travel requirement.”

The line said all arrangements have already been confirmed for our second season in Cuba, which begins December 6, 2017 and continues through March 2018 aboard the 46-guest Harmony V

“We look forward to introducing our guests to Cuba’s cultural heritage and natural wonders on our People-to-People land and sea program,” the line said. 

A Waiting Game

So now it's a waiting game for those final government regulations related to the new policy. It likely won't happen overnight, experts say.  

Block said that “while Americans [including cruisers] can continue to legally visit Cuba – with some restrictions –  we’ll work with our clients so they know that Friday’s announced policy changes will not go into effect tomorrow, next week or even next month."

But his advice is that "for American travelers seeking a slightly less-structured visit to Cuba, they shouldn’t delay. Now is the time to go.” 

Cruise line insiders, though, say it could have been far worse. For now, the cruise industry is just happy Cuba is still on the map for Caribbean cruise itineraries.   

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