So close yet so far: Disappointment on the Norwegian Sun

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Lori Osgood’s clients were eager to visit Cuba for the first time this week when they were to cruise into Havana aboard the Norwegian Sun. The group had been planning their family cruise since last November.

It was not to be.

The Trump administration’s new regulations implemented on Tuesday forced cruise lines to immediately remove Cuba from all itineraries.

“They were excited to soak in all that Havana had to offer — the sights, sounds, people and culture,” said Osgood, a Cruise Planners travel advisor in Jacksonville, Fla. “They are disappointed that they missed their chance.”

Instead of Havana, the Norwegian Sun’s passengers headed to Nassau, Bahamas. Norwegian informed passengers with an announcement on the ship.

“I sell a fair amount of Cuba and am saddened that many of my clients who were planning to travel there will not have the opportunity to do so, at least not in the foreseeable future,” she said.

As for cruise travellers already booked for Cuba, she will spend “a few extra hours to make sure our clients who were supposed to go to Cuba are well taken care of.”

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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.”

Carnival CEO says Trump likely to be pro-business

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Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald with Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann at CruiseWorld. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada
 

Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald said that the election of Donald Trump as president has the potential to be good for the cruise industry, but he also said he hopes that Trump will do “the right thing” internationally.

Donald made the comment during a conversation with Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann at CruiseWorld, an annual Travel Weekly event in Fort Lauderdale that brings together travel agents and travel suppliers.

Asked by Weissmann for his response to the election, Donald quoted Secretary of State John Kerry, who several years ago said that there are no winners or losers after a U.S. presidential election. “The next morning we all wake up as Americans” who work on problems together, Donald said.

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More specifically, Donald said, “On the surface, President Trump will be pro-business. At the same time, I hope he does the right thing internationally. Most of our business is outside the U.S.”

In a follow-up about Cuba, Donald said that despite Trump’s campaign rhetoric about reversing President Obama’s openings toward Cuba, “I’m cautiously optimistic that bringing the two countries together is the right thing to do.”

Earlier this year, Carnival Corp.’s Fathom brand became the first line to regularly shuttle passengers between the U.S. and Cuba in over 50 years.

Donald said Carnival continues to work on a private destination in the Bahamas but isn’t ready to announce anything. Carnival executives have said in the past they have a potential site picked out on Grand Bahama Island.

“We want the right one on the right terms,” Donald said. “We think we have something coming soon, but we don’t want to count the chickens before they hatch, so to speak.”

Donald took the chance to show the audience of several hundred travel agents clips from the new Carnival-produced Saturday-morning network TV shows, such as “Vacation Creation” and “Ocean Treks with Jeff Corwin.”

He also regaled the group with a tale of highlights from his rise to CEO of Carnival Corp. He said his initial introduction to Carnival Corp. chairman Mickey Arison was engineered by board member Uzi Zucker, a Bear Stearns partner who also served as an adviser to a private equity firm of which Donald was a part.

He also told about his ambition as an 11th-grader to be a very specific level of manager at a specific type of Fortune 50 company. He said the teachers at the all-boys Catholic high school in New Orleans he attended on scholarship constantly reminded their students to think big.

“Three times a day they told us, ‘Gentlemen, prepare yourselves. You’re going to run the world.'”