In Havana, historic gathering pairs cruise CEOs with government officials

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The Norwegian Sky in Havana.

Cruise lines are laying the groundwork for further expansion into Cuba now that the rules governing U.S. tourism to the island have been revised and clarified by the Trump administration.

CEOs from seven cruise companies met in Havana on Nov. 27 with Cuban government officials, along with representatives from CLIA and the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, to exchange viewpoints.

It was the first time so many cruise CEOs had gathered in Havana, according to Charles A. Robertson, who attended the meeting as chairman and CEO of Pearl Seas Cruises, which sails to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale.

“It was very positive,” he said. “The Cuban government did a great job. I think the whole relationship with the cruise industry is maturing very nicely.”

Cruise lines were left largely unscathed when the new rules for U.S. trade and travel to Cuba were announced a month ago. Hotels in Havana that are owned or operated by entities with ties to the Cuban military were made off limits, crimping land tourism. The Trump administration also blocked individual travel to Cuba, restricting visits to groups in itineraries designated as people-to-people exchanges.

MSC Cruises CEO Gianni Onorato, who also attended the Nov. 27 summit, said Cuban officials asked the group to back an easing of President Trump’s restrictions.

“We had sort of an official presentation of CLIA to the Cuban authorities, and the Cuban authorities were also asking for some sort of help or support to lift the ban,” Onorato said.

An effort to seek comment through Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism was unsuccessful.

As a practical matter, the cruise lines were unaffected by almost all the new U.S. restrictions.

“I would say it’s a minimal impact,” Robertson said. “It’s sort of a refining of the people-to-people rules under the general [travel] permit. There’s no significant change.”

So, for example, Robertson said that Pearl Seas passengers taking the line’s 10-day cruises circumnavigating Cuba can participate in organized group tours with guides and interpreters, but they also have time on their own.

“They do both,” Robertson said. “That’s true in all the cities we visit in Cuba.”

Cruise ships sailing from Florida have only been visiting Cuba since May 2016, when the now-defunct Carnival Corp. brand Fathom offered the first regular cruise to depart the U.S. for Havana in 50 years.

Since then, two Carnival Corp. brands, all three Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings brands and two Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. brands have made plans to visit the island from the U.S., along with Pearl Seas and Victory Cruise Line.

Cruise CEOs have said that pricing and demand for the cruises have been strong, stimulating plans to add new capacity. Norwegian Cruise Line has scheduled Cuba calls on a second ship in 2018, adding the Norwegian Sun from Port Canaveral to its Cuba cruises on the Norwegian Sky from Miami.

Cruises on both ships will include overnights in Havana.

A day after the summit in Miami, Royal Caribbean International announced that it, too, would add a second Cuba ship. Starting in April, its 2,350-passenger Majesty of the Seas will offer four- and five-day cruises from Tampa that include day trips and overnight stays in Havana. In October, it will do the same from Fort Lauderdale.

Royal’s 1,602-passenger Empress of the Seas, which had been sailing to Havana from Tampa, will move to Miami, where it will offer more varied itineraries. Along with five-day sailings to Havana and Key West, the Empress will offer seven-day trips that feature Nassau, Havana and Cienfuegos, which is a new Cuba destination for Royal.

The Empress will also debut an eight-day cruise that calls in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, another new port, along with Grand Cayman and Royal’s private destination in Labadee, Haiti.

Robertson said Pearl Seas, too, is planning to expand. In 2018 and 2019, it will offer more Cuba cruises on its 210-passenger Pearl Mist. By late 2019, Pearl Seas expects to take delivery of two more ships, at least one of which will likely be added to Cuba.

MSC Cruises is in a somewhat different position. Based in Geneva, it already has a well-developed business of taking European passengers to Havana. It has two ships, the MSC Armonia and the MSC Opera, that homeport in Havana year-round. In addition, it operates a ship seasonally from Martinique or Guadalupe that calls in Havana.

None of those cruises is sold in the U.S., so MSC doesn’t have to conform to U.S. regulations.

But MSC is also adding ships in North America, beginning with the MSC Seaside in Miami later this month, and Onorato said he is definitely interested in adding a Cuban port call for those ships in the future.

He said MSC has announced itineraries for its North American ships through 2020. “Until 2020, we don’t go,” he said. “We see the worst thing you can do in this business is to change itineraries because this creates uncertainty and disruptions among the customers.”

As things stand, it wouldn’t be feasible anyway for either the 3,502-passenger Divina or the 4,138-passenger Seaside to call in Cuba because the ships are too large for existing piers there.

Robertson said Cuban officials addressed the infrastructure obstacles at the summit.

“I think they’re working on it,” he said. “There were no specifics that I heard, but they are working on it, and I think we’re all going to see some improvements in the infrastructure coming along fairly soon.”

Another stumbling block was a U.S. State Department warning against travel to Cuba. Issued in late September, the warning was tied to mysterious health symptoms suffered by some U.S. and Canadian diplomats in Havana.

Robertson said the impact on bookings was short-lived.

“Demand remains strong,” he said. “When the travel warning came out, there was a dip for about 10 days. I would say it’s quite normal now, and it’s encouraging us to operate more to Cuba.”

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Pearl Mist sailing marks Port Everglades’ return to Cuba cruising

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Pearl Seas Cruises’ Pearl Mist left Port Everglades on Jan. 17 bound for Cuba, the first ship in recent memory to depart on that itinerary from the Fort Lauderdale port.

“It’s a big deal for us,” port spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy said.

The 10-day voyage will touch seven ports in Cuba, and spend two days in Havana, making it the most destination-intensive Florida-Cuba cruise.

Pearl Seas plans 11 more such voyages before wrapping up its Cuba season in April.

Previously, only one other ship has sailed from Florida to Cuba, Fathom’s Adonia. It departs from Miami.

Later this spring, several other brands are scheduled to make inaugural trips to Cuba from Miami, including Azamara Club Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.

The rise of coastal cruising

By Tom Stieghorst for Travel Weekly

Cruising in the coastal waters of North America is starting to gain attention as more companies enter the market and introduce new ships to the long overlooked niche.

Small, domestic ships are plying the bays, sounds and islands in New England, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound and the Canadian Maritimes and docking in fresh, less-visited ports of call.

Coastal ships appeal to an older, well-traveled group of passengers seeking a small-ship experience that doesn’t require distant travel and affords easy access to places they haven’t yet seen.

New entrants, such as Haimark Line and Pearl Seas Cruises, are bringing different and larger vessels to the market. And new destinations are cropping up, particularly Cuba, which coastal cruise firms say is ideally suited to their scale and style of cruising.

“It’s definitely growing,” said Debbi Robertson, a AAA agent in Lake Oswego, Ore. “The appeal, obviously, is the fact that it’s a smaller ship, it’s a small footprint with a few passengers, and you can get into nooks and crannies that you can’t otherwise. It’s a much more relaxed and easy way to go.”

Blount Small Ship Adventures vessel the Grande Caribe at Oswego on an Erie Canal itinerary. The line says it is the only overnight cruise ship on the canal.
Blount Small Ship Adventures vessel the Grande Caribe at Oswego on an Erie Canal itinerary. The line says it is the only overnight cruise ship on the canal.

Coastal cruising is similar to river cruising, except it’s done in saltwater rather than fresh. The ships top out at a little more than 200 passengers, cabins are intimate, getting on and off the ships is a breeze and destination is key.

Price-wise, coastal cruises are also closer to many river ships, charging in the $3,000 to $5,000 range for a seven- to 10-night cruise.

Each coastal company has a slightly different product lineup, with some mixing river, ocean and lake cruising depending on the time of year.

And an important distinction for most coastal cruisers is that their ships are predominantly U.S. flagged, which allows for itineraries that go between U.S. ports without a foreign stop.

“That’s part of our whole strategy, our boats being U.S.-owned,” said Tim Jacox, president of Seattle-based Un-Cruise Adventures. “In Hawaii with [the ship] Safari Explorer we’re able to operate island to island to island.  In Alaska, the fact that we’re able to operate right in the heart of the Inside Passage, Juneau to Ketchikan, there’s no wasted time whatsoever.”

In a sense, coastal cruising is an offshoot of the U.S. shipbuilding industry. The two oldest players, American Cruise Lines and Blount Small Ship Adventures, both own shipyards: Maryland-based Chesapeake Shipbuilding and Rhode Island-based Blount Boats, respectively. That stands in contrast to much of the ocean cruise fleet, which is built overseas, mainly in Europe.

The cabins on coastal cruise ships tend to be small and cozy, like this one on the Legacy.
The cabins on coastal cruise ships tend to be small and cozy, like this one on the Legacy.

The ships are different, too. Rather than stress luxury, coastal ships tend to have simpler, more functional decor. Several are built as modern replicas of vintage coastal steamers.

The coastal ships tend to have a lounge, a bar and a restaurant that can accommodate a single seating, along with open space on a top deck for sightseeing. Most cabins range from 150 to 200 square feet.

“They’re not large cabins,” said Thomas Markwell, managing partner of sales and marketing at Haimark Line. “They’re comfortable, but they’re not suites.”

On some ships, access to cabins is from an open deck rather than an interior corridor.

The topside sun deck on the 210-passenger Pearl Mist.
The topside sun deck on the 210-passenger Pearl Mist.

Typically, coastal ships have a shallow draft, which enables ships to access close-in harbors and dock rather than tender in most ports.

Blount Small Ship Adventures has engineered two further advantages: a bow ramp that permits a ship to practically dock on the beach in the Caribbean and a retractable pilot house to pass under low bridges.

Because of that feature, Blount can sail the Erie Canal, along which some bridge clearances are under 22 feet. Nancy Blount, company president, said it is the only overnight cruise ship on the canal.

People who gravitate toward coastal cruising are a distinct breed, according to cruise line executives.

“These people are intrepid travelers,” Markwell said. “They have been everywhere, but at the same time they have been no place close; they have no exposure or limited exposure to destinations of interest in North America.”

Most of them are between the ages of 55 and 75, with some in their 80s, he said. Most don’t want to be on a motor coach tour.

“They’ve taken their love of cruising and looked for an application of that concept in North America,” Markwell said. “They say, ‘We cannot physically do long coach rides anymore,’ and beyond that, especially for this aged demographic, the concept of packing and unpacking is not appealing at all anymore.”

Many have exhausted their “bucket list” destinations in exotic places that they waited their whole lives to see. Now, Markwell said, they’re on a second bucket list.

“Their interest doesn’t die,” he said. “It doesn’t wane as they get older. With that in mind, they sort of develop a new list. And that new list seems to be closer to home.”

Where they’re going on coastal voyages are places like the tiny towns on Maryland’s eastern shore; the historical districts of Quebec City or Beaufort, S.C.; or the peaks and evergreens surrounding the San Juan Islands in Washington state’s Puget Sound.

The American Cruise Lines ship the American Spirit has 51 cabins, some with individual balconies.
The American Cruise Lines ship the American Spirit has 51 cabins, some with individual balconies.

A classic coastal itinerary is a 15-day voyage offered by American Cruise Lines that sails from Baltimore down through the Chesapeake Bay and along the Intracoastal Waterway to Jacksonville, Fla.

Along the way, passengers visit Kitty Hawk, N.C., site of the Wright brothers’ first flight; Charleston, S.C., with its side-yard colonial houses; and the turn-of-the-century robber baron retreat of Jekyll Island, Ga.

Fares for the cruise, offered in late spring and fall, start at $7,725 and range up to $13,290 for the owner’s suite on one of three American ships: the American Glory, American Star or Independence. All the ships have three decks of accommodations and carry fewer than 100 passengers.

“The small nature of it, it becomes a family on board,” said Judy Roman, vice president of marketing for American and its affiliate, Pearl Seas. “It’s quite an intimate experience, as opposed to typical cruising.”

Passengers form a naturally close bond on such small ships, both with each other and with the crew, coastal cruise executives said. And the crew on U.S.-flagged ships is predominantly American, so there are no language barriers, they said.

Small coastal lines do face competition from bigger, foreign-flagged ships that offer coastal itineraries of their own.

Holland America Line has summer cruises on the Veendam along the St. Lawrence River, the Canadian Maritimes and in New England, while multiple cruise lines have coastal Pacific trips, including Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.

The West Coast itineraries include California ports of call such as Santa Barbara, Monterey, Catalina Island and San Diego. Because the ships are foreign-flagged, they all include a stop either in Canada or Mexico in order to comply with cabotage laws.

With a draft of 25 feet, a larger ship such as the Veendam is more stable on the open ocean but less nimble in reaching small ports than coastal ships that need only six or seven feet of water.

“What we’re trying to emphasize is the navigability of the vessel, because she can get to where larger ships cannot operate,” Markwell said. As an example, he pointed to the Great Lakes, where the Welland Canal between lakes Erie and Ontario limits the size of vessels to 740 feet.

Jacox, of Un-Cruise Adventures, said some of the value in a coastal cruise comes from hugging the coast.

“I think you have part of the population that wants both the security of coastal cruising — they know they’re not going to be out on the open oceans — and also that they’ll have a great vantage point. They’re going to see scenery pretty much all the time.”

At Un-Cruise, many of the shoreline excursions also have an outdoorsy adventure component, including wildlife watching, hiking, kayaking and paddle boarding, which can be done best on small ships, Jacox said.

The Legacy, sailing for Un-Cruise Adventures, is a replica of a turn-of-the-century coastal steamer.
The Legacy, sailing for Un-Cruise Adventures, is a replica of a turn-of-the-century coastal steamer.

Coastal lines tend to put a lot of thought into shore excursions to take advantage of their small-group dynamics.

“You bring 5,000 people into Quebec City, and you feel that. You bring 200 people in, and it just feels comfortable. It’s really easy to deliver unique experiences,” Markwell said.

One example is a visit to a “sugar shack” in Quebec, where maple sap is turned into syrup and candies in a small barn out in the countryside.

Most coastal cruises offer at least one complimentary excursion in each port, plus several optional ones.

Enrichment is another pillar of coastal cruising, and ships typically have a lecturer onboard who is an expert in the history, natural environment or other aspects of the destinations that the cruise visits.

Each line includes alcohol in some fashion. American Cruise Lines offers wine and beer with dinner, plus a cocktail hour. At Un-Cruise, six of nine ships include premium spirits, fine wine and microbrews in the fare.

On a Blount cruise, wine and beer are served with lunch and dinner, plus guests can bring and store their own liquor at the ship’s bar, an opportunity that “our passengers love,” Blount said.

In keeping with its relaxed nature, coastal cruising’s fleet is expanding at a casual pace. The newest entrant, Haimark Line, started sailing in April using the former Cape May Light, a 210-passenger ship built in 2001 for the now-defunct American Classic Voyages.

The only recent newbuild is the Pearl Mist, the sole ship sailing for Pearl Seas Cruises. It features relatively large cabins with individual balconies, a stabilizer, four decks of cabins rather than three and six lounges.

Pearl Seas is the latest line to announce cruises from South Florida to Cuba, which it plans to begin in April.

Cuba solves one of the challenges for coastal U.S. cruisers: where to go in the winter when most of the U.S. is too cold to be an attractive cruise destination. Several lines had focused on cruises in Central America, especially Costa Rica and Panama, where they faced little competition. But with the recent diplomatic opening in Cuba, they’re re-evaluating.

The Pearl Mist is one of the few coastal cruise ships to have individual balconies.
The Pearl Mist is one of the few coastal cruise ships to have individual balconies.
Markwell said an attractive program in the winter is a key to profits.

“It’s important that the ships sail full all year round,” he said. “We cannot make money in the summertime in the Great Lakes to lose it in the winter.”

Haimark also plans cruises from Miami to Cuba starting in February, in cooperation with United Caribbean Lines, which already has Treasury Department approval for ferry service between Florida and Cuba.

Blount, too, has Cuba in its sights, though probably not until 2017. Nancy Blount said that as a U.S.-flagged vessel, there are additional complications to getting Commerce Department approvals.

Jacox said that Un-Cruise Adventures will continue to operate on the West Coast of North and Central America, where it sails one ship in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez from November to March and another in Costa Rica and Panama.

While it shares some similarities with river cruising, U.S. coastal cruising is small even by river cruise standards. The segment in its entirety is only a couple of thousand berths.

“Because there’s very limited capacity, every time we see an opportunity, we grab it,” said Joann Bell, vice president of programming for Road Scholar, a tour operator with an educational focus.

Road Scholar has chartered Haimark’s St. Laurent for two of its four cruises in August in the Great Lakes.

“They have similar philosophies, so they have their own educational content onboard, which just enhances what our product type is,” Bell said.

Road Scholar already sends groups to Cuba on people-to-people trips, so there is synergy in that market, as well. Other operators with a similar focus, such as Smithsonian Journeys, have also placed groups on Haimark and American Cruise Lines.

Because of their small size, coastal cruise ships attract an active charter clientele. Markwell said a third of Haimark’s 15 cruises on the St. Laurent for the balance of the year are charters.

Haimark, which also has river cruises in Europe and Asia, cross-sells U.S. coastal cruises to groups taking those trips.

Markwell said Japan, Australia and France are among the countries that have provided passenger groups for Haimark.

“Because we have grown so quickly and we need that volume, it is important for us to get into those other markets,” he said.