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JESSOP

The Business of Tourism: As the US gradually lifts travel ban on Cuba - Writing on the wall for the region

One day in the not-too-distant future, it is likely that United States (US)-registered cruise ships will begin to sail into Cuban ports. That day has not yet arrived as US regulations expressly prohibit US visitors and most US-registered vessels travelling to Cuba for tourism purposes, but already, non-US cruise companies are opening up what looks like becoming a significant cruise market.

European companies, including Fred Olsen Line and Thomson Cruises, are now sailing out of Barbados and Montego Bay as well as from ports further afield including Tenerife and Southampton. Their success is likely to grow as Cuba is rapidly becoming a must-visit destination and it becomes harder to obtain a hotel room in cities like Havana in the high season because of the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban Americans and for specified categories of US visitors on study tours, or the like.

For some years now, Cuba has made clear that it wants cruise calls and has been developing its ports and marinas around the country with the expected ultimate prize being the further development the port of Havana, probably in conjunction with an international developer.

According to the official Cuban media quoting the president of the Cuban tour operators, Havanatur, José Bisbe, during the 2014-15 winter season, the island received the largest number of visits ever with 200 ship calls at various ports around the island.

US CRUISE LINES

While this has been happening, and since President Obama and President Castro's December 2014 announcement that Cuba and the US would normalise relations, the big US cruise lines have not been standing still.

At least one major US cruise corporation has been in dialogue with the Cuban authorities and there is anecdotal evidence that they are considering how best to lobby Congress. It seems they may do this along with a number of Fortune 500 companies through one of the new super Political Action committees that have recently been formed to press for an end to the US trade embargo.

The process may be slow to bring about a complete change, but it is already clear that there are incremental steps that can be taken to modify existing regulations under the US president's executive authority.

Ferry services

For instance, in the last weeks, the US Treasury and Commerce departments have granted licences to allow, for the first time in more than 50 years, US companies to operate ferry services between Florida and Cuba. The four or possibly more companies involved are expected to operate services out of Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Key West and possibly some other US ports as well.

While Cuba has still to approve the service and agree with the companies involved which Cuban ports they will call at, the decision marks a further step in the easing of travel restrictions on US citizens.

Although the ferry services are principally aimed at Cuban Americans and offer travel at a lower cost than present charted air services and will carry baggage for free, they will also be able to carry other US visitors in the 12 allowed travel categories, continuing the process of gradually making Cuba the new normal. The services may also in time carry cargo in the form of now allowed non-state exports from Cuba's emerging self employed sector.

Before the US imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, cruise ships and ferries called at Cuban ports on a daily basis. The growing interest of the cruise lines in Cuba is not yet a challenge for the rest of the region, but the writing is on the wall. Cuba in the space of months has become a hot destination for US citizens. If, as Cuba hopes, the US travel ban is eventually lifted and the big cruise lines call and take up incentives to home-port, the rest of the region needs to consider the ways in which the structure of tourism in the region will change. 

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