Fathom Cruises, a division of Carnival Cruises has announced they will no longer service Cuban ports for scheduled cruise operations. The United States Government enacted a long-standing embargo on the communist island just 90 miles south of Florida under the Kennedy Administration. President Obama relaxed restrictions and de-fanged the penalties for Americans by simply not enforcing travel restrictions as long as trips were not for tourism.
Restrictions on travel to Cuba have limited visits by US travelers against tourism. There are 12 declared permissible reasons for visiting Cuba, they are as follows:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. Government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activities
- Professional research or professional meetings
- Educational activities and people-to-people exchanges
- Religious activities
- Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Travel related to certain authorized export transactions
The process used to be much more formal and onerous, whereby an applicant traveler would have to file documentation and proof that they were traveling for one of the above reasons. Then, in order to travel to Cuba would have to either fly from a country which does not hold an embargo against the country (pretty much everywhere other than the US) or pay for expensive charter flights from a select group of cities. Charter flights could often exceed $400 for a coach seat each way, for a distance as long as flying from one side of Houston, TX to the other.
The process has now changed. Instead of filing paperwork stating your intentions and buying an expensive charter flight, you can self declare that you are indeed going for one of the stated reasons and do not need to prove in advance or upon your return that you have done so. Airlines now offer a pop-up or disclaimer making it clear that only the stated reasons are permissible for flights to Cuba, however, there is little impediment to travelers if indeed their reasons are not one of the 12 stated reasons, like tourism.
In September of 2015, Carnival announced plans for its one ship cruise line, Fathom, to begin serving ports of call in Cuba, which was later granted permission by the Cuban authorities and this March by the US authorities. The cruise line had intended to demonstrate that it was not a tourist-based cruise by incorporating social impact to align the trip under the people-to-people exemption. The cruise line intended to reach millennials with their social impact designed trip by showing Cuban documentaries onboard the ship, featuring Cuban cuisine and hosting educational tours once on the island.
It appears that ship has sailed. With more than 110 daily flight slots awarded (though not all of those were filled) to 10 Cuban cities across eight US airlines (Cubana is thought to be receiving some soon) – the market for specialty access trips to Cuba has all but evaporated. At a staggering $1,800 price point for a seven-day cruise mostly spent on land and a very dated cruise ship, it’s hard to believe that the termination of this service is anything other than an economic reality.
While the perception that Fathom was trying to circumvent the Cuban embargo and profit handsomely off of an otherwise decaying vessel may be an accurate one, Carnival was likely also trying to capture a portion of the market that have bristled at their parent’s cruise. Brands like Marriott and
, Hyatt and Uber have all identified that the millennial market, now coming of age with disposable income, is not necessarily looking to fight over deck chairs or ride a water slide at sea. It is unfortunate that validation of this marketplace in the cruise space has failed, though perhaps not because of the concept, but more from the execution.
Given the tremendous competition for air service to Cuba, flights should be cheap and awards plentiful if you want to use your miles. Other cruise lines are set to expand in Cuba, though infrastructure issues complicate the matter, flying is still the best option for travel right now.