Cuba Cruising: Agents and Executives Sound Off on Potential Sales

Photo by Joe Pike

Cuba has become the “anthem” for many cruise lines, eager to find new port calls for been-there, done-that Caribbean cruisers. In addition, the lines are clearly salivating over potential new destinations – not just Havana but other spots on the island – that are so close to the big cruise ports in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

In the latest salvo, last week, Frank Del Rio, chairman and CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), told financial analysts that his line was eager to sail to Cuba and had applied for a “People to People” license necessary for guests to go ashore. He said the company hoped to have that approval by year’s end. Del Rio also said NLCH's Oceania Cruises brand will enter the market first, given the smaller size of its ships. 

Rhonda Shumway, president, TerraMar Travel, a agency in Hemet, CA, says she’s happy to see a premium product like Oceania heading for Cuba. “This should limit the number of passengers in port as well as minimize the impact tourism will have on the destination," she believes.

NCLH plans to enter the Cuban market with its Oceania Cruises brand. Oceania Marina is shown above. // Photo by Susan J. Young

“I think this is a great move by NCLH, as we believe there is a huge market for Cuba,” Roger Block, president, Travel Leaders Franchise Group, told Travel Agent. “I believe that many Americans may want to explore the various Cuban ports while not having to pack and unpack. Depending on the itineraries that are developed, this will be a fantastic way for travelers to experience Cuba.”

It's only a matter of time before all the cruise lines apply for permission to sail to Cuba, says Jo-Ann Moss, Cruise Planners franchise owner, West Linn, OR. “Kudos to Norwegian for being among the first,” she says. “The Oceania brand appeals to a refined, educated clientele and offers excellent itineraries. Taking Oceania to Cuba is a natural move.”

Jo Ann Williams, independent vacation specialist, Cruises Inc., Manassas, VA, told us: “I expect most of the major cruise lines to follow this path to Cuba. I have no doubt the 'People to People' program will be a huge success.”

Are agents ready? Travel Agent talked with a number of executives and agents over the past few days and here are some of the topical threads of those conversations.  

Strong Interest, Unfamiliar Territory

From one front-line seller’s perspective, “my clients can’t wait for it to open or go on a People-to-People travel experience,” says Angela DeDomenico, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Boca Raton, FL

At the same time, she says the biggest challenge is lack of knowledge about the area. “At this point, we don’t know how the guests will be greeted or what they should do when they arrive.” She believes education and fam trips are necessary for agents so they can see the island first hand and scope it out for their clients.

“I’m big on education, and if I don’t feel good about the area, I’m not going to be able to communicate best to help paint a picture for the guests,” DeDomenico says, noting that the guest has to visualize the experience and know it fits their needs. 

Interest and Bookings Are Different Factors

Now that relations seem to be normalizing, "there should be really good opportunities for travelers, suppliers and travel professionals," says Brad Anderson, president, Avoya Travel. That said, he adds that while there appears to be increased consumer interest in Cuba already, “it is a little too soon to tell how that will equate to actual bookings.”

A few months ago, Carnival Corporation said its new Fathom brand will focus on voluntourism and begin service to Cuba next March. Speaking about that new brand, Shumway said: “We have had clients inquire about the Fathom cruise, mostly due to the pricing they are advertising. However, we have not had any bookings yet."

Ann Waters, president and owner of a Travel Leaders agency, Fort Wayne, IN, says Cuba is definitely the industry’s hot spot right now, but so far in her area, she’s only had a handful of Cuba inquiries and none yet about cruising. 

“Right now there remains just a general curiosity about the island but not yet a real market for actually booking travel there,” believes Waters. 

Photo by Joe Pike

Hispanic Cultural / Heritage Opportunities

Waters adds that those who do express interest are from across the demographic spectrum, and most cite the culture and history as their reasons for wanting to go. A good sales hook for Cuba may be to appeal to clients' family history and a desire to look for "roots."  

For example, Vicky Garcia, chief operating officer and co-owner, Cruise Planners, has been to Cuba and would love to go back: “Also, as a Cuban American I would also love to take my family there if possible to share our family’s culture.”

Understanding the Visitation Parameters

Debbie Fiorino, senior vice president, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., says she's hearing from agents that they are getting Cuba inquiries. "Those inquiring want to be first to experience Cuba," she says, citing the island's culture, beautiful architecture and amazing landscapes. She herself would like to go.

Infrastructure Needs Work 

Perhaps, though, Cuba is best visited -- at least right now -- for precisely the People-to-People element, given that the island's tourism infrastructure of the nature to appeal to North Americans isn't yet mature.

"Cuba still needs to improve its infrastructure to bring it up to American traveler standards," says Garcia, who believes cruises offer a unique opportunity, since ships include accommodations, restaurants and entertainment. She also says ports need to be developed, so "I see the cruise lines really helping in that area as time goes on and more policy is revealed."

A Different Kind of Island Experience

But Waters also sees an island visit to Cuba as something inherently different than a typical Caribbean port call. “To visit Cuba in the manner in which you visit other Caribbean islands – focusing on beaches and bars and just skimming the surface of its culture -- is to miss the whole point of traveling to Cuba,” she emphasizes. “In my view, visiting Cuba should be about the people - meeting them in their every-day lives in a meaningful way and at length.”

She says the experience should encompass learning about the Cuban people, their history, their creativity in living life in the face of adversity and few resources, their sharing economy and their pride in their culture. “The Cuban people are smart, have a great sense of humor and are generally wonderfully interesting to talk to if you take the time,” Water believes. 

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