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Cruise operators see new US Cuba measures as 'encouraging'

Cruise operators see new US Cuba measures as 'encouraging'
Cruise operators said the new US measures to ease the Cuba embargo are encouraging, even if they do not yet open the possibility for general tourism to the island that is enticingly close to Florida's key homeports.

An itinerary planner for a Florida-based line told Seatrade Insider the news 'sounds encouraging,' adding: 'Still, for the cruise business, we're not there yet.'

New Treasury Department and Commerce Department rules announced Thursday allow travel to Cuba for a dozen specific reasons such as family visits, education, religion, public performances, clinics, workshops and exhibitions—without first having to obtain a special license from the US government, as before.

In addition, the per diem rate previously imposed on these authorized travelers will no longer apply, and there is no specific dollar limit on authorized expenses. Travelers will be allowed to engage in transactions ordinarily incident to travel within Cuba, including payment of living expenses and buying goods for personal consumption there.

Also, Americans may now use US credit and debit cards in Cuba.

Furthermore, travel agents are free to book authorized travel without needing a license.

The changes follow President Obama's Dec. 17 pledge to ease some trade barriers in an effort to move toward normalized relations since, as administration officials reiterated Thursday, decades of isolating Cuba have not changed the communist system.

The island has been off limits to most Americans for more than 50 years.

US-based cruise operators hope to be able to take their ships one day, but nobody knows when that might become possible.

Speaking the day before the new rules came out, Larry Pimentel, president and ceo of Azamara Club Cruises, described the interest in Cuba as 'exceedingly high. There is pent-up demand.'

About a dozen ports, including the capital, Havana, could take cruise ships, he said, but only smaller ones and even some of those would have to anchor. Landside infrastructure, such as motor coaches to handle large numbers of people, would have to be addressed, too. 

'All the lines in passenger shipping have studied this,' Pimentel said.

The Azamara chief stressed that nothing has changed to allow calls by US-based operators. Nobody, he said, will be putting Cuba in their new brochures.

'I think there are dim chances that in the next 12 months, anything will change,' Pimentel added. 'I think it will take longer.'

Some cruise planners told Seatrade Insider it may take years.

As one pointed out, while President Obama is using executive powers to ease trade barriers, only Congress can lift the embargo. With Republicans now controlling the House and the Senate, that is not likely to happen soon, the cruise executive said.