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Major Cruise Lines Jockeying For Position to Home Port Out of Cuba

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ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISE’S EMPRESS OF THE SEAS

HAVANA — Royal Caribbean will be home-porting the refurbished Empress of the Seas in Havana, the Virgin Islands Free Press has learned.

Effective August 14, the Empress of the Seas, originally named the Nordic Empress, will be sailing 7 day cruises from Havana to Nassau Bahamas, Labadee Haiti, Falmouth Jamaica and Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. In a starting move, the cruise line will be changing the name of the cruise ship to the Cuban Empress.

The cruise ship left the Royal Caribbean fleet in 2007 and, since then, has sailed for Royal Caribbean’s Spanish subsidiary Pullmantur Cruises. Last year, Royal Caribbean announced that the cruise ship would be returning to its fleet in March of this year.

The ship has been undergoing extensive renovations, first in Cadiz Spain and currently in Freeport Bahamas for the past several weeks. The ship was supposed to be sailing a Caribbean itinerary this summer but recently canceled six weeks of cruises because the cruise ship’s renovations were behind schedule.

Many travel agents have speculated that the cruise ship, because of its smaller size, is well suited to be the first ship for Royal Caribbean to enter the Cuban cruise market. It will be the smallest cruise ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet behind the Majesty of the Seas. Many travel agents have noted that the cruise line has not booked any cruises on this ship after July as a sign that Royal Caribbean has planned all along try to get the Empress into Cuba before the end of the summer.

Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain commented that “Cuba is a great opportunity for us in the cruise business because we bring our own hotels and our own infrastructure . . . ”

Earlier this month, Carnival announced that it had obtained approval from Cuba to sail from the U.S. into Cuban ports. On May 1st, Carnival’s new “social impact” brand, Fathom, will be sailing passengers from Miami to several ports in Cuba, on the Adonia, a cruise ship with around 700 passengers. This will be the first time in 50 years that a cruise ship from Miami will call on a port in Cuba.

Motivated by profits (fares on the Adonia are 2 to 3 times the average cost of a Caribbean cruise) and its competition with cross-town rival Carnival, Royal Caribbean pulled off a coup by one-upping Carnival by becoming the first U.S. cruise line which will base a cruise ship in Cuba. Royal Caribbean’s Chief Operating Officer Adam Goldstein, who reportedly has spent several weeks in Havana meeting with Cuban officials, is expected to speak at a press conference later today.

Royal Caribbean will utilize Havana’s relatively modern cruise facility where two European lines, Costa Cruises and Pullmantur, used to operate. But both pulled out after Costa was acquired by Carnival Corporation in 2000 and Pullmantur by Royal Caribbean in 2006 due to the U.S. ban on travel to the communist nation.

Royal Caribbean has made several Cuban-themed renovations to the cruise ship which executive Goldstein will be announcing shortly. The Cuban Empress will feature the “Che Guevara cigar room” Cuban Prisonwhich will feature fine, hand-rolled Cohibas cigars.

The cruise ship will also unveil the “Royal Castro Grill” where cruise passengers can enjoy fine Cuban cuisine. Late night entertainment will take place in the “Fidel & Raul’s” nightclub where guests can dance the Mambo and sip Cuban “Havana Club” rum.

The cruise line will be offering excursions to Cuba’s famous Combinado del Esto prison which houses thousands of dissidents and political prisoners. Also imprisoned are hundreds of Cuban families who tried to flee Cuba to the U.S. on make-shift rafts but were intercepted by U.S. based cruise ships and then forced to return to Cuba (no photos allowed).

MSC Cruises announced recently that it would be the first major cruise line to home port  out of Cuba.

The 2,120-passenger ship will spend two and a half days in the Cuban capital as well as calling at Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Mexico. Bookings for any of the 16 sailings can be made in the UK from July 9.

Several small and mid-ship cruise lines already call at Cuba, notably Thomson Cruises, Fred Olsen Cruise Line and Saga Cruises plus cultural cruise lines Swan Hellenic and Noble Caledonia.

No other cruise lines homeport in Cuba, however, and America’s ban on travel to Cuba from the US has kept American-owned cruise lines out. These restrictions look increasingly likely to be overturned though.

Caribbean cruises calling at Cuba and popular with Americans are already offered by Star Clippers and the Celestyal Cruises offshoot Cuba Cruise, which uses the ship Celestyal Cristal.

Even if Congress does lift the American ban it is unlikely large ships will be able to dock at Havana until the terminal has been extended and money invested in dredging the port and improving infrastructure.

This leaves Italian-owned MSC Cruises with the opportunity to build a strong base in Cuba. “We are particularly proud to make this exciting new destination available to our guests,” said Gianni Onorato, MSC’s Chief Executive Officer.

“The move to Cuba proves our commitment to offer our guests and holiday-makers the best and most sought-after destinations as they become accessible – thus further enhancing our global offering while providing travellers best-in-class experiences and service.”

The first MSC cruise will depart from Havana on December 22, 2015, at the end of MSC Opera’s Grand Voyage from Genoa to Cuba. The ship will also leave Cuba on April 12, 2016, for a Grand Voyage back to Europe, arriving at in Germany on May 7, 2016.

Highlights of Havana include the UNESCO World Heritage old quarter and the famous Malecon seafront promenade.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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