Friday, April 22, 2011

Cruises to Cuba coming?

Cruises to Cuba coming?
Written by Shawn Dake Shipping News Apr 21, 2011

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.

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

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