Cruise-Line Leaders Have Sights on Cuba

(Sun Sentinel/TNS) —

Cruise lines are looking to send their ships to Cuba as soon as general tourism is allowed, executives said Tuesday at the industry’s biggest annual convention in Miami Beach, Fla.

Travel restrictions to Cuba have been loosened under new U.S. regulations, but travel remains limited to 12 approved categories, such as educational and religious activities, family visits and to participate in humanitarian projects, among other qualified activities. Advocates hope the new rules will lead to a lifting of the nation’s trade embargo on the Communist island.

Leaders of the top cruise lines, participating in a panel moderated by CNN international business correspondent Richard Quest, all said they see Cuba as a future cruise destination.

Question asked: Are cruise operators really prepared for when the island opens up legally?

“Once the rules allow us to go legally, once the embargo is lifted, which is the main restriction … yes, we’re ready,” said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., parent company of cruise lines Norwegian, Oceania and Regent Seven Seas Cruises. “And I would bet that all of us in this town are ready to move at a drop of a hat.”

Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corp. & PLC, which has nine cruise brands including Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Seabourn, said, “Certainly we have plans, and when the embargo is lifted, we’ll be there.”

On other topics, the panel:

— Expressed optimism about another year of industry growth, with a record 23 million cruise passengers forecast to sail globally in 2015, up from an estimated 22.1 million cruisers last year.

— Agreed that growth depends on getting more people to try cruising for the first time. One way to do that is to demonstrate the value of a cruise versus a land-based vacation, they said.

“We have to do a better job of getting the value proposition of cruising across to consumers,” said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., whose cruise brands include Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises.

“We are growing … actually this is a good time for the industry … but really breaking out and getting a whole new level of customer coming in is something that somehow we haven’t quite found the mold for, and I think that’s a big challenge for us,” Fain said.

Millennials also are seen as a key demographic for increasing passengers.

Plans were discussed regarding adding itineraries and ships in new and emerging cruise markets such as China and Australia, and offering more onboard amenities to keep new and repeat customers engaged.

South America and the eastern Mediterranean also present opportunities to increase cruise passenger traffic and business, some cruise executives said.

The panel discussion also featured Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman of Italian cruise operator MSC Cruises, which runs its U.S. cruise division from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In 2014, MSC Cruises saw growth in Europe, where the number of cruise passengers grew by about 30,000 people to 6.4 million cruisers, he said.

But given Europe’s potential of 700 million cruisers, that’s only about a 1 percent penetration with plenty of room to grow, Vago noted.

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