via Flickr user Stephen Colebourne
Port of Havana

Cuban Cruises and Royal Caribbean’s Subtle Announcement

Empress of the Seas sailing out of Miami. Captured by Greg Dragonetti ©CruiseInd
Empress of the Seas sailing out of Miami in November 2016

The biggest takeaway I had from Royal Caribbean’s Q3 2016 Earnings was that Royal Caribbean is opening Empress of the Seas (ex-Empress, Nordic Empress) bookings further into the future. Ever since she rejoined the fleet in April of this year, Royal was opening Empress bookings up only several months at a time. However, during the Q3 earnings conference call, CEO Michael Bayley said that they will be opening up Empress bookings further into the future and will worry about ‘itinerary adjustments’ when they arise.

I say this is important because while it wasn’t officially confirmed by the line, it’s long been suspected that Empress would be Royal Caribbean’s first ship to Cuba. Demand is said to be unknown and hard to forecast, so the 1,800 pax ship would fit the bill. The idea was Royal Caribbean would only open her up for bookings around 3 months in advance. That way when they got State Department approval for Cuba cruises they can quickly change her from sailing the Bahamas and start sailing her on Cuban centric cruises. Because there were no future bookings more than 3 months out, the change could happen more quickly. They can start filling up the ship with guests paying a premium for visits to the island and with guests that were intending to go there in the first place.

The recent announcement by the CEO says to me that their patience had run out. They would rather fill the ship up than sit idle waiting for a decision from the government. When Cuba opens up for them, they can just swap out ports and give guests an onboard credit if they wish.

Speaking of Cuba:

“But isn’t there already a Cuba ship” you may ask?

Louis Cristal Cuba
Louis Cristal Cuba

Yes there is. Several in fact. The most well known one is Royal Caribbean rival, Carnival Corp.’s fathom brand. They sail to Cuba every other week. In addition there’s also Celestyal Cruises, Celestyal Crystal (ex-Louis Crystal, Silja Opera, Leeward, Sally Albatross) which sails there but they primarily cater to non-US residents. They also homeport in Jamaica and turnaround there. MSC also sails there with the MSC Opera and MSC Armonia with port calls in Havana. Pearl Seas Cruises, the International flagged branch of American Cruise Line, are intending to sail the Pearl Mist there this winter. There have also been some rumblings that Blount Small Ship Adventures would sail there also, but that is yet unconfirmed as of this posting.

The big stipulation is that you still can’t travel there for pure tourism reasons. This is the big hurdle facing Royal, Carnival and NCL. American’s can sneak in via certain reasons and I’ll add them at the bottom of this post.

While airlines can legally transport passengers between the US and Cuba, it’s still a bit of a gray area. You must travel to Cuba on the basis of an economical or educational trip. Of course it’s pretty easy to claim that when you enter whether it’s for those reasons or not. But that’s up to the individual traveling to make that decision. The State Department even relaxed restrictions on what you can bring back into the sates i.e.(Rum and Cigars.) so change is coming, just slowly.

Unfortunately its hard to predict when the mass market lines will get approval to sail to Cuba. Dealing with the Government are always tricky. CLIA, the trade association and lobbying group for cruise lines, are no doubt meeting with officials to try to expedite this. However with the upcoming holidays and the change over in Government coming, it’s even harder to give a proper timeline.

Per US Treasury Department’s OFAC, and as written in the CFR’s, here are the 12 reasons you can legally travel to Cuba.

  1. family visits;
  2. official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations;
  3. journalistic activity;
  4. professional research and professional meetings;
  5. educational activities;
  6. religious activities;
  7. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
  8. support for the Cuban people;
  9. humanitarian projects;
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes;
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials;
  12. certain authorized export transactions.