American Cruise Companies Stand To Benefit From U.S. Changes To Cuba Policy

Jul 10, 2017
Originally published on July 13, 2017 12:12 pm
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President Trump announced new restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba last month, but cruises were allowed to continue. The cruise industry saw a big opportunity after the Obama administration began allowing Americans to visit Cuba, and the business is growing. NPR's Greg Allen sent this report from Miami.

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GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Nearly every day at the Port of Miami, cruise ships pull away from the docks, headed to Caribbean destinations, places like the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and increasingly Cuba. Kim Bird of Dallas was one of those waiting to board a liner to Havana.

KIM BIRD: Cruised many times. Cuba's a place I've always wanted to just see.

ALLEN: Bird was with her friend Alyssa Bain, a travel agent from Miami. Bain is booking a lot of trips to Cuba for clients, and she wanted to check it out for herself. When she heard last month President Trump was getting ready to announce a new Cuba policy, she was concerned.

ALYSSA BAIN: At first but now no - as far as travel goes, cruises - definitely no change at all.

ALLEN: What will change is that it largely ends individual travel. Everyone except Cuban-Americans visiting family now can only go with groups on humanitarian, cultural or educational trips. That's a policy that leaves cruise ships in the clear. Cruisers are advised they need to fill out an affidavit and take part in an educational or cultural excursion. Many of those now going to Cuba are experienced travelers who're looking for a new destination in the Caribbean but want the amenities of a cruise ship. That's one reason Bain says she didn't consider flying to Cuba.

BAIN: A lot more expensive, number one. So to just do a week would cost you probably double. And I think that's why when the cruise lines have - now are coming out with the four- and five-night cruises, people can afford it. And they also have a place to go back to that's nice and comfy, cozy in the evening and air conditioned (laughter).

ALLEN: Since Obama reopened travel to Cuba, the cruise business has changed a lot. For its first sailings to Cuba, Carnival looked for passengers who wanted to participate in volunteer activities on the island. But Mike Driscoll, the editor of Cruise Week, a trade publication, says that model was quickly shelved as Cuba blossomed into a mainstream cruise destination.

MIKE DRISCOLL: Now it's going to the bigger players. Norwegian Cruise Line have ships with 2,000 passengers going approximately. And now so does Carnival. And now with Holland America going in, you have more upper-end lines going to Cuba as sort of the next step.

ALLEN: During his campaign, Donald Trump vowed to roll back Obama's Cuba policies, so people in the travel industry knew changes were coming. When the president announced the restrictions in Miami last month, the cruise lines were pleased but restrained in their reactions. Here's Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain interviewed on CNBC.

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RICHARD FAIN: Cuba has been good for us, and the changes he made had no really negative effect. I don't think I would look for a positive effect. I'd much rather understand exactly what they're doing, and that would help us.

ALLEN: Cruise lines and the entire travel industry are now watching for new regulations from the Trump administration that will lay out important details of the president's Cuba policy. A key issue is a ban on doing business with the Cuban military, which owns hotels, car rental agencies and many restaurants and shops in Havana's old city. Depending on how it's interpreted, the ban could leave cruise pastures with nowhere to go in Old Havana. But John Kavulich with the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council says cruise lines and others doing business in Cuba have been somewhat reassured by recent comments from the Treasury Department.

JOHN KAVULICH: So far they are saying that if a company, a cruise line has relationships with entities in Cuba that are controlled by the Cuban military, that those are not going to be disrupted.

ALLEN: For now the main restraint on cruise travel to Cuba is infrastructure - facilities that can handle the estimated quarter million people expected to visit the island over the next two years on cruise ships. Greg Allen, NPR news, Miami.

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