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Hello Cuba! (Sort of)

Susan SchafferIn the U.S. there is a definite buzz in the air about the prospect of being able to travel to Cuba. Our non-U.S. readers may not understand the anticipation that is mounting here, but because of travel restrictions and embargoes dating back to the 1960s, travel to Cuba from the U.S. has been verboten. For some of us that are “too young,” we can’t remember a time when traveling to Cuba was even an option.

Over the past few months, more and more land-based companies have been jumping on the Cuba-travel bandwagon, and now mass-market cruise lines are making their moves as well. The first to announce was MSC Cruises, an Italy-based and flagged cruise line, which will home-port the MSC Opera out of Havana, Cuba starting this winter. MSC joins several other smaller cruise lines already sailing out of Cuba: Thomson Cruises, Fred Olsen Cruise Line, Saga Cruises, Swan Hellenic, and Noble Caledonia. The catch? Well of course the catch is that U.S. passengers cannot book any of these cruise itineraries yet, because of travel restrictions that still exist. U.S. citizens wanting to visit Cuba must do so under the Treasury Department’s 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba, which include educational activities, humanitarian projects, and religious excursions.

The cruise line that U.S. passengers will be able to book to Cuba will be the new Fathom Cruises, a brand of Carnival Corporation. Fathom is being marketed as a “social impact” cruise brand, and the squawking about pricing has already begun. I belong to several consumer-focused groups throughout the internet, but most notably on Facebook. Carnival Cruise clients are already “outraged” at the prospect of paying $2,990 per person for the “privilege to work while on vacation.” And that doesn’t even include the port charges or government taxes (which have not been announced yet).

For any travel professionals looking to cash in on booking cruises to Cuba, this will be hurdle number one: qualifying your clients. Fathom will fall under the wider umbrella of “voluntourism,” and not all cruise (or travel) clients are a good fit for this type of travel. Voluntourism is defined as “tourism in which travelers do voluntary work to help communities or the environment in the places they are visiting.” In a nutshell: paying to volunteer while on vacation. For clients that simply want to eat, drink, and sleep their way through vacation, they will need to hold off on a cruise to Cuba until ALL travel restrictions have been lifted.

As for the projected cost of sailing a Fathom cruise to Cuba (starting at $2,990 per person, plus yet-to-be-determined port charges and taxes), why so high? For starters, the ship is significantly smaller (710 passengers), similar in size to luxury cruise lines like Regent Seven Seas. Toss in the loss of onboard revenue that cruise lines typically rely on to boost their bottom line and you have a need for higher up-front cruise fares. Carnival Corporation still needs to pay the bills, pay ship-board employees, and of course, pay stockholder dividends. Fathom is not being operated as a nonprofit charity.

The ship Fathom will be using for these cruises (the MV Adonia) does not have a casino, which is a major money maker for most cruise lines. Although it has a spa, they may not anticipate as much revenue from a spa when there are only 710 passengers onboard. Of course alcohol will be sold onboard, but again, the clientele this cruise will be marketed to will likely not be the type to run up large bar tabs. And with some of the restrictions still in place for U.S. travelers to Cuba, excursions will not be a money maker either. U.S. restrictions still prohibit participating in typical tourist activities, such as scuba diving and bike tours.

For anyone looking to market and book cruises to Cuba with the new Fathom Cruise Line, I recommend doing your research into the niche of voluntourism and learn how to carefully qualify clients for this type of travel. Simply marketing these cruises to mass-market past passengers won’t suffice. You will receive a great deal of push-back on the pricing alone, not to mention the concept of working while on vacation.


Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel (www.shipsntripstravel.com) located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations (www.kickbuttvacations.com), she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at susan@shipsntripstravel.com or by phone at (888) 221-1209.

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