What's Next for Cuba Cruises

Fathom’s Cuba sailings will employ the 710-passenger Adonia. Pictured is the ship’s elegant atrium.
Fathom’s Cuba sailings will employ the 710-passenger Adonia. Pictured is the ship’s elegant atrium.

A marker in Key West, FL, symbolizes the most southerly point within the continental U.S. and proclaims: “90 miles to Cuba.” For decades, Cuba has been so close yet off limits to most Americans. This year, however, travel restrictions have eased and opportunities are increasing for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba via “People-to-People” exchanges, traveling with a company holding a U.S. government-approved license.

Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group, recently experienced Cuba during a “People-to-People” land-based tour. “With that brief taste of what Cuba has to offer, I can say that being able to experience different portions of Cuba, via a cruise, would be fascinating,” stresses Block. Excited — but not surprised — to see tour operators and cruise lines entering the Cuban market is Ann Craig-Cinnamon, franchise owner, CruiseOne, Greenwood, IN: “It means more choices for travelers and it may translate into lower prices which will help make Cuba more affordable than it has been.”

Earlier this year, Carnival Corporation launched “fathom,” its 10th brand and the first with a social-impact focus. Fathom is approved by the U.S. government for the required Cuba license. It’s projected that 37,000 fathom cruisers will spend 100,000+ days a year volunteering or participating in cultural, educational, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian “exchanges.” Operated by the 710-passenger Adonia, the new line’s itineraries will launch to the Dominican Republic in April and to Cuba in May.

Fathom President Tara Russell notes that, “Giving back never goes out of style, but how one chooses to give back does change with the times. Fathom has opened up a whole new door in giving by pioneering social impact travel at a scale not seen before.” Concurring is Kyle Oram, CEO, KVI Travel, a Vacation.com agency in Kelowna, B.C., who says the new line “seeks to bring people of all ages, ethnicities and spiritual journeys into a deeper understanding and respect for each other — something the world desperately needs these days.”

Ann Craig-Cinnamon, seen here at the rooftop pool of Havana’s Hotel Capri, says that cruise lines entering the market will ultimately “help make Cuba more affordable than it has been.”
Ann Craig-Cinnamon, seen here at the rooftop pool of Havana’s Hotel Capri, says that cruise lines entering the market will ultimately “help make Cuba more affordable than it has been.”

Tracy Bonetti, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Kingston, NY, says she’s received many similar inquiries from consumers; the brand will be “very appealing to those seeking ‘voluntourism,’” and she’s booked a group on the line’s first Cuba sailing. 

Fathom isn’t a typical cruise product, however. Prior to reaching Cuba, guests will attend lectures to heighten their Cuba knowledge and interest. Yes, the ship will have quality accommodations and dining, but not Broadway-style production shows nor a casino, although cruisers can spend a beach day at Amber Cove. Brad Anderson, president, Avoya Travel, applauds the “uniqueness and approach Fathom has come into the market with… Over time we’ll get a better sense of customer reaction to the concept.”

Fathom’s best clients? Vice President of Sales David Drier says the brand has seen early interest from active Millennials wanting to give back; young families wanting to expose their children (ages eight to 18) to giving back; and those 50 and older looking for the ease of a turn-key, give-back program.

Bonetti says she looks at people who are active in their community at home: “They’re always searching for ways to give back and help in both their communities and to the world in general.”

Fathom will be “very appealing to those seeking ‘voluntourism,’” says Tracy Bonetti.
Fathom will be “very appealing to those seeking ‘voluntourism,’” says Tracy Bonetti.

Fathom is sure to generate “an abundance of interest,” says Jo Ann Williams, independent vacation specialist, Cruises Inc., Manassas, VA, who points to a close friend who does missionary work and, when cruising for vacation, brings school supplies to local children. “The concept of voluntourism is not new, but never did we imagine it would reach this magnitude,” Williams adds. 

In August, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) said it had applied for a “People-to-People” license, which it hopes to receive by year’s end. Frank Del Rio, chairman, NCLH, says the company expects to start Cuban cruising with premium Oceania Cruises. Bonetti believes that “it makes perfect sense to start out with the Oceania brand due to the size of the vessels.” Hugh Sheppard, president, Encore Travel, a Vacation.com agency in Urbandale, IA, says, “The Oceania brand is great quality and this will enable many travelers to visit a destination that’s close and new to them.”

MSC Cruises’ 2,120-guest MSC Opera will homeport in Havana for winter 2015-16, offering 16 Caribbean cruises from Havana to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Mexico. Guests will spend two and one half days in Havana. Guests will likely hail from Europe or South America but a U.S. traveler or group could possibly sail with an approved “People-to-People” license (or with a group that has one), but check with MSC before booking.

Pending government approvals, Pearl Seas Cruises plans seven to 10-night cultural voyages to Cuba in spring 2016. The 210-passenger Pearl Mist will sail roundtrip from South Florida to Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. In conjunction with Florida-based United Caribbean Lines, Haimark Travel’s 105-cabin Saint Laurent will sail nine-night Cuban itineraries from Miami, starting in February 2016; voyages that totally circumnavigate the island will start at $4,599 per person double. Since large ships may only spend a few days in Cuba, Sandy Anderson, president and owner of a Travel Leaders franchise in Coon Rapids, MN, is promoting an Alexander and Roberts cruise on the Saint Laurent. “I personally think it’s a great option,” she says.

Celestyal Cruises returns to Cuba again this coming season with Celestyal Crystal; the company owns Cuba Cruise, based in Canada, which has offered the cruises for some years. Globus will operate a new 10-day “Cuba by Land & Sea” program on that ship with calls in Havana, Maria La Gorda, Pinar del Río, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Among other options, International Expeditions plans Cuba cruises later this year and in 2016 on the chartered, 48-guest Panorama.

Oram says Canadian consumers have experienced what a fantastic destination Cuba is — with a rich culture, beautiful beaches and friendly people. “It’s been ‘our little secret,’” he quips, but notes that Canadians are happy to share it with their American neighbors.” He’s also thrilled to see more cruise lines entering the market. For Americans, though, the biggest challenge is a lack of knowledge about the area,” says Angela DeDomenico, Cruise Planners, Boca Raton, FL. “At this point, we need ‘fam’ trips to visit and understand so we can best recommend the island,” she says. “What I’ve seen is an apprehension simply due to the unknown nature of Cuba,” adds Sheppard.

Qualifying clients is critical as a typical Caribbean cruise passenger may not like the stringent touring dictated under the “People-to-People” program, notes Craig-Cinnamon. “You don’t go to Cuba and lay on the beach all day if you want to and passengers will have to be informed that they will be expected to participate in the programs.” But for a properly matched client, she believes Cuba has great potential, noting that anytime she mentions the destination to a group of consumers, there’s an audible “ooh” and “aah” around the room. So it’s “Cuba or Bust,” for many cruise lines and travel agents, eager to pioneer new revenue frontiers so close to home.

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