In April, a Royal Caribbean cruise will become the first to make the historic sail to Cuba from Port Tampa Bay.
The announcement of the cruise, which came Friday, makes Tampa Bay one of the first metro areas in the country to land both a nonstop flight and cruise itinerary to Cuba after the easing of restrictions by President Barack Obama that have kept Americans from visiting for decades.
But as Obama's presidency comes to an end and President-elect Donald Trump is poised to enter the White House next month, some analysts wonder if the increasing connections to Cuba — and the business that comes with it — are in peril.
Interest in traveling to Cuba has grown rapidly since Obama began improving relations and easing restrictions with the country last year. But the United States' relationship with Cuba going forward is uncertain, as are Americans' opportunities to travel there as tourists under a Trump presidency, experts say.
"So the question will be, are there enough passengers willing to take a cruise to Cuba to support it?" said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York. "We will have to wait and see what happens. But if restrictions are increased, will travelers be satisfied with looking at Havana from just the balcony of their ships?"
The announcement comes on the heels of plans for starting commercial flights from Tampa International Airport to Havana on Southwest Airlines, which will take off for the first time Monday. Tourism boosters hope they can squeeze an extra room night or two from out-of-towners who come to Tampa Bay on their way to Cuba, said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's tourism arm.
"With all the cultural ties that Tampa has to Cuba, we hope that entices people to do a pre- or post-day in Tampa," Corrada said. Otherwise, the new cruise ship's impact on the Tampa Bay region will be minimal, he said.
While travel restrictions have eased for Americans visiting Cuba, an embargo is still firmly in place. That means American travelers can't visit Cuba just as tourists, and wanting to bask on Cuban beaches and explore old Spanish markets isn't good enough. The five-decade embargo limits travel to cultural, educational and humanitarian purposes. Cargo is limited to food and medicine. Tourism and business are not permitted.
Carnival Corp. was the first cruise line to begin offering cruises to Cuba in May with service out of Miami. But Carnival will end those operations next spring when it shuts down its Fathom line. Both Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line were approved Friday to offer additional sailings to Cuba. Both cruise lines will offer sailings from the Port of Miami, too.
Frank Reno has been booking humanitarian trips to Cuba as a guide for years. He said cruises are a great option for travelers wanting to go to Cuba now, since the country doesn't have the hotels and restaurants to support tourists yet.
"All these new flights and cruise trips will put even more stress on the infrastructure there," said Reno, who noted his business has been booming lately because of the growing interest in traveling to Cuba. "But no one knows what's going to happen next year with the change in administration and how that could affect Cuban policy."
The recently updated Empress of the Seas will port in Tampa for the 2017 summer season and offer a series of four- and five-night sailings to ports in Cuba. It will join two other Royal Caribbean ships in Tampa, the 2,543-passenger Brilliance of the Seas and 2,416-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas. The Empress of the Seas ship will start the season with a seven-day cruise, then offer four- and five-day itineraries. More details of the summer itineraries will be released at a later date, according to a news release.
"This is truly historic for Port Tampa Bay to have cruises to Cuba, and we are thrilled that Royal Caribbean has chosen Port Tampa Bay to offer the largest ship to sail to Cuba from the United States. To have three Royal Caribbean ships in 2017 is exciting for cruise passengers seeking new and innovative experiences," said Paul Anderson, CEO of Port Tampa Bay, in a statement.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.