Many experts define cruises as an exploratory form of tourism that, through short stays in each port, allows travelers to visit and learn about various destinations. Undoubtedly, it is a modality that at the very least is effective and solvent.
A particular feature of the Cuban tourist boom of recent years has been the increased arrival of cruise ships to the island. Of the more than four million tourists who visited Cuba in 2016, 112,000 arrived aboard cruises.
In fact, the cruise industry has been gaining in popularity globally. According to data from the World Tourism Organization, there are increasing numbers of cruise ships and other recreational vessels visiting the most diverse ports around the world.
According to these figures, cruises are among the tourist modalities that have grown the most in Cuba and the Caribbean over the last five years. While the region receives an annual average of 50,000 vessels of all kinds, it also welcomes about 60% of the cruise ships operating on the planet.
According to Ivet Caballero, deputy commercial director of the Cuban National Port Authority (APN), as a generator of hard currency and employment, cruises are fundamental to the international economy. “It is an industry of proven strength, a sector in which there has been extraordinary growth, a qualitative and quantitative expansion,” she emphasizes.
Without losing sight of the fact that its development requires port infrastructure and commercial services to achieve good quality, with efficiency, it is expected that the number of cruise ships passengers worldwide in 2017 will increase to over 25 million. This is a remarkable increase when one considers that ten years ago this figure was approximately 15.8 million.
Caballero noted that 26 new sea and river cruise ships will enter into service this year, while during the period 2017-2026, the industry expects to build 97 new ships, with investment of 53 billion dollars.
As regards Cuba, the island expects to receive some 370,000 cruise passengers this year, three times more than in 2016. As Caballero notes, the largest cruise companies in the world operate in the Caribbean region, and four of these have operations in the Cuban archipelago.
Meanwhile, Doraidy Velázquez, main specialist of the Commercial Directorate of the Ministry of Tourism (Mintur), emphasizes that, in addition to flying – the most common means of traveling to the island – cruise ships have become a recognized way of visiting the country.
Following the resumption in May 2016 of cruises from the United States, suspended in 1961, arrivals to the island skyrocketed. These luxury vessels have become a way to visit, over a maximum of two days, cities like Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, with on board accommodations, food, and comfort.
ALONG THE CUBAN COASTLINE
Caballero recalls that the beginning of the cruise business in Cuba dates back to the 1990s. Back then a Cuban entity, today Áreas Transporte, was charged with the responsibility for all cruise operations in the country and, to date, it is the only port operator undertaking this activity in the country.
Although the demand for cruise ships arrivals to Cuban ports exceeds the capacity of current port facilities, the immediate development programs include the modernization of infrastructure at several points in the country, in order to improve these services. Feasibility studies are still being conducted to determine the possibility of authorizing foreign companies to participate in these plans.
Likewise, requests for new operations are being analyzed, which are processed through Áreas Transporte, Mintur, travel agencies, and other bodies, taking into account the real possibilities of the country and with a focus on companies that are recognized worldwide.
At the same time, considering the comparative analysis of the results and the number of requests for operations, experts in the field believe that this sector will continue to expand steadily in Cuba. Caballero notes, “This will entail a high level of coordination between the parties involved, to offer quality standards that are globally competitive.”
Director General of Viajes Cubanacán, Mercedes Abreu, explains that there are three international cruise terminals, an international marina in Cayo Largo del Sur, and nine national operations points across the island. The main ports for cruise activities today are those of Havana, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba and Cayo Largo del Sur, with international arrivals and departures.
Similarly, the ports of Casilda, Antilles, Puerto Francés, and María La Gorda, also welcome cruises. The APN deputy commercial director notes that these last two are unique sites, as they constitute protected areas, and thus operations there are carried out with utmost care for the environment.
“Tour operators provide fabulous excursions to cruise passengers to cover all types of clients, and choose the main attractions. They are products designed in the multiple languages of the people on board and these are sold on the ship itself,” Abreu notes.
The Viajes Cubanacán director explains that the cruise industry is a way of integrating the island with the rest of the Caribbean, offering visitors the opportunity to appreciate the tangible and intangible heritage of the Cuban nation. Cruise liners only require a ship, an itinerary, and awareness of the characteristics of each Cuban port, as some are not authorized for international arrivals and departures.
She adds that Cuba is a special destination due to its geographical location and marine platform. “The island has all the conditions for the cruise sector to become strategic. Among the main Cuban attributes, there are nine world heritage sites; including some of the island’s cities, which are among the oldest in the continent; more than 300 beaches, including several among the best in the world; biological diversity with many endemic species. The cultural richness should also be mentioned.”
In other words, the combination of these attractions makes it possible to create and consolidate services and offers that are complementary to accommodation, “products that distinguish the country and at the same time promote other forms of tourism such as health, marine, nautical, and heritage,” Caballero notes.
Despite the economic, commercial, and financial blockade that the U.S. government has maintained for more than half a century, she highlights, “It has been possible to create port infrastructure and to receive foreign visitors in a safe, solidary, and hospitable environment, and with qualified personnel, which guarantees the effective realization of what has been planned.”
It should be noted that there is a group of services offered on the island to complement cruise operations, such as piloting, towing, mooring, shore boats, general services, garbage collection, water supplies, and provisions.
HOW TO PROVIDE FOR FUTURE DEVELOPMENT
In addition to the construction of new hotels and the renovation of airport facilities, the Cuban tourism sector has new challenges. The island’s port authorities have noted the need to increase the availability of berths in facilities certified to conduct cruise operations; initiate processes to create the necessary port infrastructure to serve cruise ships, according to international standards; ensure the authorization of other port facilities, identified to facilitate the demand for cruise itineraries including Cuba among destinations; and improve general services for cruise vessels.
In this regard, Mintur commercial specialist, Doraidy Velázquez, states: “Through the Viajes Cuba enterprise group, composed of several agencies that promote Cuban attractions among cruise passengers, not only can our nature be enjoyed, but also the recreational, nautical and cultural activities we have. Our policy is to develop sustainable and responsible tourism.
“We are very conscientious of the loading capacities of each destination. Based on these, we make it known that the cruise companies that want to join us are welcome. We promote care of our heritage. Since cruise activities don’t usually result in profound knowledge regarding destinations, we want the opposite to happen, so that foreigners can learn more about the people who live here today in Cuba,” she concludes.
Ever since the ship Adonia of the Fathom cruise line, a subsidiary of U.S. company Carnival, became the first to arrive to Cuba from the U.S. in more than five decades, with some 700 passengers aboard traveling from Miami, other companies such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Azamara Club, Royal Caribbean Cruises, MSC Cruises and Pearl Seas Cruises have begun operations to the island. The most encouraging aspect for those working in this sector is that the number of companies and ships continues to increase.