Cruises to Cuba coming?

United Caribbean Lines is a company without ships that isn’t anywhere near starting service yet, but has come up with an interesting concept.  They plan to use converted Danish ferries for service from Tampa, Florida to Havana, Cuba, with a possible secondary service to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.   The overnight voyages would take 18 hours each way.  Should Cuba open up to U.S. tourism this line could be riding in on the first wave.  Perennial cruise executive, Bruce Nierenberg is the man behind this latest venture.

United Caribbean Lines proposed livery.

Travel to Cuba is currently banned for most, but not all U.S. citizens.  Cuban-Americans with relatives on the island are permitted to travel on charter flights, and do so in great numbers, from Miami, Tampa, New York and Los Angeles.  The concept of taking them to Havana by ship is not approved at present, although Nierenberg is said to be in the process of seeking permits from the U.S. Treasury Department.  The idea is that with a comparable cost, and the ability to take more goods and supplies along with them, people would opt to go by sea instead of air with the added amenities of dining, shows, movies and entertainment.   The concept of a mini-cruise on converted ferries is not something new to Nierenberg who three decades ago was CEO of Scandinavian World Cruises which later evolved into the one-day SeaEscape Cruises.   Proposed fares would be $350 round-trip based on double occupancy of a cabin, or $150 in an airline-style seat in a lounge.  For families traveling together, third and fourth guests would be charged half fare.  The vehicle decks of the ferry could be used for transporting larger items like bedding, appliances, medicine and clothing that are either not available or too expensive to be purchased in Cuba.

United Caribbean Lines says it has the ability to start service later this year if it is granted the U.S. license to serve Cuba.  Nierenberg claims that there will be no trouble in procuring suitable vessels in the 1,500 to 2,000 passenger range.  “It’s a buyer’s market these days, and I will have no problem getting cruise ferries from one of the major operators in Denmark.”  Not so, says European ferry expert Bruce Peter.  “DFDS (Danish Ferries) do not have any passenger ships for sale; the next to become available will probably be from Viking Line once their new Stockholm-Turku vessel is built.  There’s not exactly a glut of cruise ferry tonnage for grabs in Europe right now.”

The vessel pictured in United Caribbean Lines color scheme is actually the ANEK Lines ferry EL. VENIZELOS.  The ship was originally ordered in 1979 but took until 1984 to launch for Stena Lines as the STENA POLONICA.  It was never delivered to them, and in 1988 the still incomplete ship went to Fred. Olsen Lines and was renamed BONANZA.  Finally in 1992 the ship went to the Greeks and was completed as EL. VENIZELOS, making for one of the longest gestation periods of any major vessel.  The 575 foot long ship has a gross tonnage of 38,261 tons.  The ship is presently chartered to Tunisia Ferries and ANEK have denied that a deal has been done.  Bruce Nierenberg has previously stated that the vessel pictured is only for illustrative purposes and it might be a different ship that they finally acquire.

Cruise ferry service from Tampa to the Yucatan has also been proposed for many years without much success.  During the winter of 2002/2003 the SCOTIA PRINCE (ex STENA OLYMPICA) gave it a brief try before discontinuing the route.  With the present decline in tourism to Mexico, this seems like a bad time for a start-up car ferry operation.  This service is proposed for the first half of 2012, with the voyage taking 30 hours each way.  While no cars would be carried to Cuba, up to 600 at a time could be transported to Mexico.  If unrestricted tourism to Cuba were to open up in the future, having a ship already based in Florida that could quickly be shifted from Mexico to Cuban service might prove to be a great benefit for United Caribbean Lines.

Cuba currently receives 2.5 million visitors each year primarily from Canada, Europe and Latin America.  More than 400,000 Cuban-Americans flew to Havana in 2010.  The projected influx of U.S. tourists is projected at between 1 and 2 million annually should the embargo be lifted.  A large majority of these would arrive by cruise ships as hotel capacity in Cuba is still too low to handle the additional arrivals.  The resignation this week of 84-year old Fidel Castro from leadership of the Cuba Communist Party coupled with the Obama administration relaxing restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba may both be signs of enormous changes coming sooner than later.  The cruise industry will be on the first wave of reaping the benefits should Cuba emerge as the latest Caribbean tourism destination.

Thanks to Bruce Peter and Martin Cox

Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake
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