Following a significant thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations during the Obama administration, cruise options catering to travelers curious about our long off-limits Caribbean neighbor flourished in recent years. Accessibility, relative affordability, and a considerable reduction in government-imposed red tape for travel resulted in the debut of Cuba-inclusive itineraries from most major cruise lines, ranging from heavy hitters like Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean, to more premium small-ship brands like Seabourn and Viking. And the demand from cruisers followed suit.
But thanks to a major tightening of U.S. government travel restrictions to the Caribbean island—which was announced on June 4 and went into effect a day later—that boom cycle has officially gone bust, much to the dismay of aspiring American cruisers.
“Without warning, CLIA cruise line members are forced to eliminate all Cuba destinations from all itineraries effective immediately. This affects nearly 800,000 passenger bookings that are scheduled or already underway,” explained the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the cruise industry’s largest trade association, in a statement. The policy change (following policy shifts that had been foreshadowed in recent months) immediately bans all previously approved cruise line travel to Cuba from the United States. Here’s what you need to know to make sense of the ban.
Why was the ban implemented?
It all comes down to politics. In a statement outlining the rationale behind the move, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cited the “destabilizing role” of Cuba in the Western Hemisphere, calling it a “communist foothold in the region” and accusing it of supporting government “adversaries” in countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua. Mnuchin added, “These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”
White House national security adviser John Bolton praised the new rule as “ending ‘veiled tourism’ to Cuba,” via Twitter on Tuesday. Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla rebuked the policy shift, tweeting that the new travel restrictions were “aimed at suffocating” Cuba’s economy.
Will any Cuba cruises still be permitted to sail?
The rise of Cuba cruising was largely owed to the now-defunct “people-to-people” license, granted for travel to the country for purposes of education and cultural exchange. A fresh repeal of that licensing process, coupled with the newly announced U.S. ban on Cuba visits for all passenger and recreational vessels—including cruise ships and yachts—all but ensures that Cuba cruising is over. “Unfortunately, it’s pretty much across the board that there’s no more cruising, effective [June 5],” Tom Popper, president of the Cuba-specialized tour operator InsightCuba.
Carnival Corporation—parent company to three cruise lines with sailings scheduled to Cuba, including Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line, and Seabourn (the latter was poised to debut Cuba cruises in November)—announced on June 5 that the company was ending all calls to Cuba, effective immediately. Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Oceania, Silversea, and Virgin Voyages (Virgin was due to debut with Havana-inclusive itineraries in April 2020) also confirmed to AFAR that they are ceasing Cuba operations; other cruise line announcements following suit are all but imminent.
Carnival spokesman Roger Frizzell lamented the circumstance, telling AFAR by email, “Cuba was an exciting place for our guests to visit, so we are disappointed that we can no longer offer this as an option.”
“We are disappointed that cruises will no longer be operating to Cuba,” echoed CLIA chairman Adam Goldstein, in a statement. “While out of our control, we are genuinely sorry for all cruise line guests who were looking forward to their previously booked itineraries to Cuba.”
Popper added, “What’s unclear in all this is whether or not some of these smaller cruise ships might be able to apply for specific licenses,” referring to federally authorized exemption permits that might still permit sailing there. However, “I think it’s unlikely,” he concluded.
What happens if I’m already booked on a Cuba-inclusive cruise?
With little in the way of a grace period for cruise lines to come up with alternatives, companies are still scrambling to process and adapt to the full implications of the policy change.
“The short answer is that it’s likely going to vary from line to line,” explained Erica Silverstein, senior editor at cruise review- and community-focused website Cruise Critic. “Cruise lines are very much still working through what this policy change means for their customers. For the short term, some lines have begun altering itineraries where Cuba was just one port on a larger Caribbean itinerary, replacing Cuba ports with others in the Caribbean. We’ve yet to hear how cruise lines will be handling those Cuba-specific sailings where Cuba is the sole destination.”
Virgin Voyages said in a statement that “the beauty of sea travel means that we have the flexibility to take our ships to many wonderful destinations,” adding it would announce adjusted voyages featuring a new destination early next week.
For affected 2019 sailings, Royal Caribbean said it has secured to-be-announced alternative ports; it is allowing guests to choose to sail on the new itinerary with a 50 percent refund or to cancel and receive a full refund.
Silverstein said, “Compensation will likely vary from cruise line to cruise line. To date, there are some cruise lines that are offering some sort of compensation—or rebooking options—and others that have not yet extended any.”
Details are still hazy on what ports cruises will swap out for those in Cuba. Said Silverstein, “Factors to consider will be which ports have the ability to accept additional ships, which ports specific lines visit, and the size of the ship as it relates to port capacity.”
Beyond cruising, how else can I travel to Cuba?
Cruising had been the most common means of leisure travel to Cuba for Americans, and many organized group tours by land had also relied on the now-defunct “people-to-people” license to bring travelers to the Caribbean island. (For qualified travelers, the sanctions won’t affect commercial airline fights as of yet.)
“The good news is of the 12 categories of permissible travel, 11 of them remain intact,” said Popper, of other U.S.-government approved travel categories for Cuba, which include things like family travel, travel for professional research and meetings, and travel that provides support for the Cuban people. “So there still are options for Americans to legally travel to Cuba.”
He explained that the “support for the Cuban people” trips are poised to be the next category the travel sector embraces. These types of trips have requirements like staying in a private home, as opposed to a hotel, and adhering to itineraries that are inclusive of meetings with local entrepreneurs and artists. InsightCuba has been offering these types of trips for years and is updating its inventory and website to reflect new policy-adherent Cuba trips, a strategy anticipated to be adopted by other Cuba tour providers, too.
“For four presidents we’ve seen regulation change after regulation change and we’ve always adapted,” Popper said. “We look at this as the newest phase and we’ll get on the other side of it. People will continue to travel to Cuba and to be amazed by what they see.” Just don’t expect it to be on a cruise ship for the foreseeable future.