The cruise ship LV Louis Cristal set sail from Havana on the first of its round-the-island trips, marking yet another effort to establish Cuba as an attractive and profitable cruise industry destination.
Cuba Cruise, based in Calgary, Canada, chartered the vessel this year for weekly sails through March 24 that will take on passengers in Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica, for seven-day circumnavigations of the island for $746 and up.
The 1,200-passenger vessel will make stops in Havana, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos and Punta Frances on the Isle of Youth, and offer tours of beaches, nightclubs and colonial-era fortresses and architecture.
The Cristal, built in 1980, is owned and operated by the Cyprus-based Louis Cruises, which operates largely in the Mediterranean. Cuba Cruise was founded in January by cruise businessman Dougald Wells.
Several previous attempts to establish Cuba as a regular cruise destination have failed, in large part because of economic sanctions by the United States, which forbids U.S. tourism in Cuba and bars any ship that docks at Cuban ports from entering the U.S. for six months thereafter. The U.S. and Canada are the source of an estimated 70 percent of Caribbean cruise passengers, and most cruise ships plying Caribbean waters are based in South Florida.
Asked if Cuba Cruise would allow U.S. tourists to board the ship in Jamaica, Melissa Medeiro, media coordinator for Bannikin Travel and Tourism, a Canadian consultancy representing the company, said it was not up to Cuba Cruise to check on passengers.
"We encourage everyone to check with their local authorities," Medeiro said. "But Cuba does not impose any restrictions (on U.S. tourists), and Cuba Cruise does not discriminate against any nationality boarding the ship."
After decades of rejecting mass tourism, Cuba began opening its doors in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its massive subsidies to the island's communist government.
Spain's Sol Melia company launched one attempt in 1996, using the 840-passenger Melia-Don Juan for sailings from Cienfuegos on the south-central coast. The ship's Cuba itineraries appear to have stopped in late 1997.
The Russian-operated cruise ship Adriana, capable of carrying up to 300 passengers, sailed around the island at least four times in 2011. On one stop in Santiago, it disembarked 62 passengers, according to a Cuban news media report. There has been no mention of further dockings since then.
The 54,000-ton Thomson Dreams, capable of carrying up to 1,132 passengers, has made several ports of call in Havana in recent years with mostly British and other European passengers.
Cuba's cruise tourism business peaked in 2005 with 122 ships reportedly delivering 102,440 visitors _ an average of 840 per ship. But it has been in steady decline since then, according to the National Office for Statistics.
The office reported 30,000 cruise ship arrivals in 2006, 7,000 in 2007, 5,000 in 2008, 4,000 in 2009, 2000 in 2010, and a mere 1,000 in 2011.
Cuban officials have never explained the plunge in cruise arrivals. But Fidel Castro's comments in 2005 that cruise visitors spent little and left behind "rubbish, empty cans and paper" may have made Cuban officials less interested in dealing with cruise lines.
Jose Antonio Lopez, then-general manager of the state company that runs the country's four cruise terminals, told the Reuters news agency in 2008 that Cuba has the port capacity to receive 1 million cruise ship passengers and 600 ships a year. Havana alone can dock several ships of up to 70,000 tons, he added.
U.S. cruise industry officials have estimated it could take at least four years to update Cuba's ports so they can handle today's 150,000-plus-ton mega-cruise ships. The world's largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, weighs in at 225,000 tons and carries up to 5,400 passengers.
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