With an anticipated lessening of travel restrictions to Cuba by the Obama administration, U.S. cruise lines are playing it cool. They're not going public with their plans, but authorities agree that reopening Cuba to American tourists could give the recession-impacted travel industry a welcome boost.
A survey of cruise lines, for the most part, produced carefully parsed answers about their Cuba plans when government-imposed travel and trade restrictions are lifted. However, a couple cruise lines went on the record about their interest.
In fact, Frank Del Rio, the 54-year-old CPA who founded Oceania Cruise Line, can't wait for the cruise lanes to open. He was born in Cuba, and fled the Communist island with his parents when he was 6 years old.
Del Rio, a University of Florida graduate who resides in Miami, is also chairman and CEO of Prestige Holdings Inc., parent company of Oceania and Regent Seven Seas cruise lines. As such, he's responsible for financial and strategic development of both cruise lines.
"Ten minutes after Castro dies," he said, "negotiations to open up Cuba will begin. This is a real country with a distinct culture and history. There's a lot in Cuba that the other islands don't have. For one thing, it's by far the biggest island in the Caribbean, and there are a lot of ports that would make very good stops as well as launching pads for other Caribbean destinations.
"It's forbidden fruit, and that gives it very strong appeal. My dream is that the next Oceania ship will be christened in Havana harbor."
Although Oceania has two ships under construction in Italy at a cost exceeding $1-billion, it's unlikely that could happen soon.
"There's no way the Marina, due to be launched in 2010, would be christened in Havana or anywhere else in Cuba," Tim Rubacky, Oceania corporate communications director, said. "The ship needs to be christened before she sets sail with her first guests. Based on the construction schedule, it's just not possible. That's not to say one of the other new ships wouldn't be."
The partner ship of the 1,232-passenger Marina is scheduled for launching in the summer of 2011.
Early in his election campaign, President-elect Obama called for an end to the embargo. He later modified his position, saying his administration would have a less confrontational policy with the Communist nation, allow greater contacts and more frequent visits by Cuban immigrants but wouldn't immediately end the embargo.
Cruise lines with a U.S. presence are prohibited by law from operating in or out of Cuba. But, said Lanie Fagan, communications director of the Cruise Lines International Association, "There are operators who do not operate to and from the U.S. who do call on Cuba."
The nearly 50-year-old embargo prohibits exporting all but a few health and farm essentials to Cuba and bars Americans from traveling and spending money there. Violators can be subject to hefty fines, and in recent years, the Bush administration has stepped up prosecutions.
Even so, thousands of Americans have been going there annually without a State Department license, leaving from places like the Bahamas, Canada, Mexico and Jamaica and requesting Cuban custom officials not to stamp their passports.
When the time comes that Americans don't have to stay under the radar, Cuba promises to be an intriguing option for cruisers.
"Crystal Cruises would certainly entertain calling on Cuba if it opens up to American tourists," spokeswoman Mimi Weisband said. "We welcome the opportunity to add new destinations to our Caribbean itineraries and Cuba is ideally located for cruises into and out of South Florida. Like every place we visit, we would have to look closely at the island's infrastructure for our luxury cruise operations."
Retired newspaper reporter and editor Si Liberman splits his time between Palm Beach and New Jersey.