The need for Caribbean islands to diversify their tourism products and showcase local color and flavor to generate consumer demand was also a recurring, emphatic theme by panelists.
When the US embargo is fully lifted, Cuba’s opening will prompt lines to create new Caribbean itineraries designed to especially lure first-timers, dubbed 'new to cruising' passengers.
'There’s pent-up demand,' said Christine Duffy, president, Carnival Cruise Line.
Cuba passengers will represent 'low-hanging fruit,' said Rick Sasso, president, MSC Cruises USA. 'Passengers are going to come to Cuba and then we’ll sell them other cruises.
'Cuba is like an ice cube in an ice box,' Sasso added. 'Every five years, someone opens the freezer. It’s never going to melt unless someone keeps that door open. In the next one to three years, it could happen.'
For most lines, Cuba likely will be just one destination of several on cruises of seven days or longer, Sasso said. 'Passengers are not just going to take a three-night cruise to Havana.'
Asked by moderator Anne Kalosh, US editor, Seatrade Cruise Review and Seatrade Insider, whether lines 'can go immediately,' panelists smiled and nodded.
'I think it takes about 20 hours,' said Michael Bayley, president and ceo, Royal Caribbean International. 'Cuba is a major destination for Europeans and Canadians. The rest of the world has been doing there for decades.'
Andy Stuart, president and chief operating officer, Norwegian Cruise Line, called Cuba 'a destination that will deliver. Clearly, there’s a lot of excitement within our company.'
Meanwhile, details of new Caribbean developments and ships were highlighted.
Carnival Corp.’s new $85m Amber Cove port on the Dominican Republic's north coast is set to open in October as a joint local venture, offering outdoor activities such as horseback riding, four-wheel buggy riding and snorkeling. 'Our guests love this kind of immersive experience,' Duffy said.
NCL’s new 75-acre Harvest Caye island attraction, about three miles off Placencia in southern Belize, is scheduled to open in early 2016, Stuart said.
NCL and Disney Cruise Line have signed long-term agreements that guarantee passenger arrivals for a cruise pier expansion at Road Town in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
A new landside development, Tortola Pier Park, will have retail, entertainment and food and beverage outlets. 'It will deliver a wonderful arrival experience,' Stuart said.
Near the Caribbean, MSC’s newly announced 4,100-passenger Seaside prototype ship will be based year-round at PortMiami, beginning in fall 2017, under a long-term agreement for Caribbean sailings, Sasso said.
Royal Caribbean's 227,700gt Harmony of the Seas, set for delivery in mid-2016 as its third Oasis-class ship, will sail from Port Canaveral to the Caribbean.
Meanwhile, Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association president Michelle Paige outlined the importance of the Caribbean as the industry’s 'birthplace'—attracting 20m passenger arrivals this year, compared to 8m two decades ago.
The Caribbean is the world’s top cruise destination, according to Cruise Lines International Association, with more than a third of global deployment capacity market share in 2015.
But that dominance is down 2% this year to 35%, Paige said, noting that 'Asia has grabbed that 2%.'
Passengers are seeking greater diversity throughout the Caribbean. To ease travel for Germans, FCCA is working with destinations to provide translators.
'The Caribbean has only just begun to grow,' Paige said. 'Passengers want products made in the destination, not made in China.'