Visiting Cuba is a bit like stepping back in time. Restored relations between the US and Cuba has opened new tourism routes to the country, which is paving the way for the emergence of cruise line operators and an influx in visitors to the island. The cruise industry plays a key role in maintaining a balance between the cultural heritage and traditions of the island, while supporting a new and developing infrastructure attributable to growing tourism. From brightly coloured buildings to rows of 1950s Cadillacs and the melodic tones of Spanish, French and Haitian Creole, Cuban culture is epitomised by its distinctive landmarks and characteristics. Largely untouched by US tourism for 50 years, the hike in holidaymakers to Cuba will need to support the island’s developmental interests in order to maintain mutually beneficial relationships.
The lift of the economic embargo and easing of travel restrictions between the US and Cuba is a historic moment for the cruise industry which could lead to new long and short haul routes to and from Cuba and the Caribbean. MSC Cruises has become the first cruise line to be based in Havana with two cruise ships operating from the port in winter 2016, one of which will go on to operate year-round in 2017. Carnival Cruises is set to launch regular sailings to Cuba from Miami starting with its Fathom brand. As cruise lines expect trips to be popular among holidaymakers, it is crucial that cruise supports the Cuban economy in a positive way and works to preserve Cuban culture for both the island’s inhabitants and newcomers looking to experience it.Cruise will drive demand in both the hotel and hospitality industries, as well as providing Cuba with an opportunity to showcase its unique cultural values to the outside world. In this way, the cruise industry offers unique opportunities for tourism development within the island as showcased by MSC and Carnival Cruises. MSC’s new destination itineraries to and from Cuba will run throughout 2016 offering stays in Havana, allowing American and international guests to experience first-hand the Unesco World Heritage Site of old town Havana, Habana Vieja. Cuba experienced a 17 per cent growth in tourism accounting for 3.5 million visitors in 2015, and is expected to slow to a growth rate of 6 per cent, which would be 200,000 more visitors, bringing the total number of expected holidaymakers to 3.7 million in 2016. The influx in tourism has allowed tourists to experience the historical and political importance of Cuba. However, the increase has drastically raised demand for investment in new hotel, restaurant and leisure facilities. It will be interesting to see, in the next few years, how these booming industries will maintain the balance of preserving authentic Cuban culture while keeping up with rising levels of tourism.
Carnival Cruises’ new ‘social impact’ brand Fathom is focused exclusively on travel that ‘gives back’. Social impact travel is a form of cruising unlike any other, working to create a positive impact through tourism that prioritises the culture and the people of its destinations. In this way it allows travellers to make a difference and conserve the traditions of the location whilst cruising. As a first-time cruise line in Cuba, American-run Carnival Cruises is determined to make a good impression to Cuban tourism. It’s exciting to witness this rising trend of cruise lines evolving to put a focus on responsible travel and being increasingly conscious about ‘grassroots tourism’. With a homeport in Miami, Carnival offers direct access to Cuba and the opportunity to engage with locals and the regional traditions of the island through seven-day itineraries with Fathom. Cruisers can get involved in a host of activities from ‘voluntourism’ to sustainability and community initiatives. The Fathom brand will contribute to Cuba’s infrastructure while meeting the demands of a new and evolving tourism industry.
To benefit both the cruise industry and the Cuban economy, the influx of tourism to Cuba must positively impact the culture, heritage and traditions of the Cuban people while supporting a growing and open economy within the Caribbean. The effects will be monitored carefully and, in order to ensure continued support, cruise operators must align with the local community and government to forge strong relationships and safeguard not only the destination’s unique culture but also the local economy. While it may seem obvious that an increase in tourism would benefit local people, in regards to tourism it is not always that simple. In some cases, corporations can reap the benefits and local communities can feel (and be) exploited, with the destination’s local economies becoming reliant on tourism while facing a decline in other industries. This is why the new programmes by MSC and Carnival’s Fathom tours are key to developing a presence within the changing Cuban landscape creating lasting opportunities for tourism there. It’s encouraging to see cruise lines balancing the increases in tourism while preserving cultural heritage and local tradition. This will be essential for continued relationships between the cruise industry and those involved directly in Cuba’s economy.
The efforts of MSC and Carnival cruises displays a commitment to creating relationships within the Cuban community. New cruising opportunities are supported by Cruise Nation seeking to continue the initiative of allowing holidaymakers to connect with their destination through culture, food, history, music, and art. Cuba offers opportunities for a variety of travellers to explore these aspects, from its distinct neighbourhoods to the beautiful coastal scenery. Holidaymakers can relive the legacy of the former residents of the island, sampling the famous daiquiris at one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite watering holes, La Floridita. Travellers will also relish soaking up the sunshine on the eight kilometre-long Malecón seaside promenade, or simply enjoying the beaches of Playas del Este and Varadero. Cuba certainly has an unsettled political past and it’s easy to see by visiting the mausoleum of Che Guevara with a museum nearby documenting the iconic revolutionary’s life. Other than culture and history, Cuba offers wonderful nature to explore with luscious-green hiking trails. Cuba is a destination offering an abundance of activities and opportunities for holidaymakers which cruise lines and tour operators will no doubt be keen to promote in the coming months.
Cuba offers an opportunity for cruise operators to make a genuine impact when expanding their destination and excursion offerings to the Caribbean. The cruise industry is well prepared to meet the increasing demand for travel to Cuba and can work to create a mutually beneficial experience for tourists and the destination alike. By working alongside the Cuban tourist board, the cruise industry can continue to support the new and evolving tourism infrastructure within the island. At the same time, it provides guests with the truly unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture and tradition that makes Cuba one of the most desirable destinations in the Caribbean. Through positively impactful tourism, the cruise industry can begin to establish a strong relationship with Cuba and solidify its place as a leading contributor to the Cuban economy.
Phil Evans is MD of Cruise Nation