Transforming the journey from the US to Cuba

Bruce Nierenberg, chairman and CEO of United Caribbean Lines, shares how rule changes to the US Government’s embargo on passenger ship travel between the US and Cuba has impacted on the company’s plans for passenger ferry services between the countries

Transforming the journey from the US to Cuba
Bruce Nierenberg will use his long experience in the cruise and ferry sector to develop the new US-Cuba passenger service

Why is Cuba drawing so much attention as a potential destination for ferry services from the US?
Cuba, which is the largest Caribbean island, is located just 90 nautical miles from the US and was the number one international destination for several million American travellers before the Cuban revolution in the late 1950s. The sheer size of the potential travel market to Cuba, the general growth in travel, the affluence of the Florida region and its access to Cuba, and the fact that Americans have not been able to travel to the island for more than 50 years will make this a very successful operation.

Plus, studies have shown that more than 25% of travellers prefer not to fly from the US to Cuba and ferry services provide a more practical and cost-effective mode of transport, particularly for the two million Cuban ex-pats who live in Florida and regularly visit Cuba. They will be able to carry up to 1,000lbs of approved humanitarian goods via our ferries for a third of the costs of excess baggage on aeroplanes, while families will be able to save 25-50% off the cost of air travel.

As we say at UCL, “you can go to the airport and stand in line for several hours and get abused or you can drive your car on to our ferry service and we will hand you a Mojito”.

What services does UCL plan to offer?
We’ll deploy large overnight 2,000-passenger ferries with more than 400 cabins and offer a full onboard service with dining, entertainment and accommodation offerings similar to those available on a short overnight cruise. For example, after boarding our ferries in Florida in the late afternoon, passengers will be able to enjoy an evening meal and then have breakfast before disembarking in Havana the next morning. Onboard entertainment and activities will be suited to various age groups and we’re working with Havana-based tourism organisations to put together a programme of onboard lectures given by travel experts. Ferry traffic brings much more involved tourism to a destination than a cruise as the travellers stay onshore. As a result, UCL will make a special effort to prepare the American travellers for their first visits to Cuba.

When do you expect the ferry service to start?
When UCL received the first OFAC licence for ferry service to Cuba in May, we expected to start service by the end of 2015. However, all involved parties need more time to fulfil the logisitcal requirements so that Havana can handle the ferry service. This will be the first ferry service between Cuba and the US for more than 55 years and both countries want to ensure the services run without a hitch, particularly as the whole world will be watching.

We already have US government approval to carry passengers who meet its 12 categories of approved travel to Cuba and we expect to secure approval from the Cuban authorities to begin the ferry service in the early months of 2016. When the Cuban government gives us the green light and all the logistics are secure in terms of terminal facilties, Homeland Security and more in both the Port of Havana and the florida homeports, we will start our voyages. By the time we have everything in place, I expect this to be by summer 2016 or slightly later in the year.

Where will your ferries homeport?
UCL has chosen PortMiami and Port Tampa Bay as homeports, primarily because it makes sense to offer our services where there is a significant population of Cuban American citizens. Tampa also has a significant historic connection to Cuba and is in the middle of one of the largest connection to concentrations of travellers and retired affluent people in the world. We’re working with both port authorities to set up the necessary operational, customs, immigration, agriculture and security facilities required by the US and Cuban governments.

We are also actively supporting and participating in the implementation of the required security and related procedures for both ends of the itineraries. Although Cuban Americans will initially comprise a significant part of the passenger traffic while the embargo remains in place, this will change to a higher percentage of vacationers and non-Cuban Americans as the embargo continues to unwind.

Is UCL working on any other passenger services between the US and Cuba?
We have been working with US-based Haimark Cruises and to begin a series of all-inclusive nine-day cruises that will depart PortMiami and circumnavigate Cuba from February 2016. There will also be several one-week trips from Miami to Havana, which will begin in late December 2015 and end in January 2016. This will make history – it will be the first cruise service to depart the US and visit Cuba since the start of the Cuban embargo.

We also have been approached by other cruise companies and tour operators to assist them in setting up new operations in Cuba taking advantage of our six years of experience in developing passenger ship travel to Cuba. The country will become the largest destination in the Caribbean for passenger shipping for both cruise and ferry traffic, so the companies involved will reap the benefits of this largely untapped destination.

Why do you think UCL’s services will be successful?
I will use my more than 40 years of experience in the cruise and ferry sector to make the UCL Cuba ferry service from Florida one of the best in the world. We have more experience than any of the other proposed ferry operators to Cuba in developing new destinations in the Caribbean basin. Cuba has been around along time of course, but for passenger shipping traffic from the US, it’s a new destination in every respect.

Although I previously started the first year-round scheduled cruise service to Ocho Rios in Jamaica, Cozumel in Mexico, and Grand Cayman and the Out Islands in the Bahamas, ferry services is a pure startup operation. However, our experience in starting new passenger shipping products in the Caribbean – such as the first cruise service from Florida’s Port Canaveral, now the third largest cruise port in the world for embarking passengers – will serve us well. We understand the Caribbean and know how to make it work for ferry service.

How will new changes in US travel regulations impact the ferry service to Cuba?
On 21 September, the US Government simplified travel to Cuba for Americans even further. The most significant change for UCL as a ferry and cruise operator was the elimination of the need for special OFAC licences to operate services to Cuba from the US. Now, if they follow the rules for who can go to Cuba and what you do while you are there, shipowners can use a general licence available to all US-operated shipping companies. There are two important restrictions for the cruise operators. First, if you are taking Americans to Cuba on a cruise, you cannot go to a third destination, which rules out using Havana as a one day stop on a traditional Caribbean cruise itinerary. The other requirement is that Americans onboard the cruise must follow the 12 categories of approved travel to Cuba.

The US has also made other changes in banking and operating procedures that will make it a lot easier to operate to Cuba. We expect further changes in the coming months, including the US embargo to be totally lifted.

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Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
05 November 2015

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