Sunshine… cocktails…blue ocean… and Presidential politics?
These days it seems like everything has become political. And in this upcoming election that could extend to cruising.
In most times, the cruise industry isn’t impacted that much when it comes to who is President. Democrat or Republican, cruising is simply a chance for us all to relax and have a great time — seemingly a million miles from the political infighting that goes on elsewhere.
But in this election year, there is potentially something big at stake for the cruise industry. And if the Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins in November’s vote, then it could lead to something positive for cruises: the reopening of Cuba as a cruise destination.
How Cuba Opened Up to U.S. Cruises
For decades Cuba was essentially a closed country to Americans. During the height of the Cold War, Cuba and the United States saw a “freeze” on relations. What used to be a popular Caribbean tourist spot became off-limits to most.
In 2014 under President Obama, that tension started to ease. The Obama Administration came to an agreement with the Cuban government that included a number changes in relations between the two countries. There were fewer restrictions on remittances, the reopening of embassies, and fewer travel restrictions.
Under this new policy, commercial flights direct from the United States and Cuba resumed after more than fifty years. As well, cruise ships began to visit the island nation.
The first cruise line to visit was a ship from Fathom Travel in 2016. Quickly, other cruise lines added stops in Cuba, including Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. Seemingly overnight, Cuba became a must-see destination on many cruises.
For a short time, Havana became one of the most exciting new ports of call for U.S. passengers.
To be clear, it wasn’t all mojitos and hanging out on the beach. Under the new rules, passengers had to visit under one of a handful of special reasons for visiting, as defined by the U.S. government.
One reason was a cultural exchange between Americans and Cubans, also known as “people to people” travel.
This allowance was broad enough that cruise passengers could visit as long as they engaged in some sort of cultural exchange — with specially-tailored cruise line excursions normally fitting the bill.
However, under the Trump Administration, stops in Cuba were suddenly ended.
The Trump Administration Closes the Door
In June 2019, rules regarding travel to Cuba changed dramatically as the Trump Administration decided to undo the loosening seen under President Obama’s tenure.
“Cuba continues to play a destabilizing role in the Western Hemisphere, providing a communist foothold in the region and propping up U.S. adversaries in places like Venezuela and Nicaragua by fomenting instability, undermining the rule of law, and suppressing democratic processes,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“This Administration has made a strategic decision to reverse the loosening of sanctions and other restrictions on the Cuban regime. These actions will help to keep U.S. dollars out of the hands of Cuban military, intelligence, and security services.”
As part of the tightening of rules, the U.S. government specifically banned “passenger and recreational vessels, including cruise ships and yachts” from visiting the island.
Practically overnight cruise lines had to rework itineraries to remove Cuban ports of call. And what had been seen as a promising new opportunity for cruise lines and an exciting new place for Americans to visit was quickly closed.
Obviously should President Trump win a second term, then there is little chance that these rules will be reversed and cruises will return to stopping in Cuba.
However, if President Biden is elected, there’s reason to think that cruises could return to the island.
Presidential Candidate Biden’s Comments on Cuba
As the Vice President during President Obama’s time in office, Joe Biden had a front-row seat as the administration eased the rules regarding travel to Cuba. However, there is much more than his association with the Obama Administration that points to a potential warming of relations with Cuba.
In a recent interview with a Miami news station, the former Vice President was asked if he would return to the Obama-era policies regarding Cuba if he was elected.
“Yes, I would,” Biden said. “In large part I would go back. I would still insist they keep the commitments they said they would make when we set the policy in place.”
While he didn’t specifically mention cruising, he did say “there’s no reason to continue the policy that this President [Donald Trump] has put in place.”
When pressed about the fact that Cuba offers support to Venezuela and that opening up would seem to reward the country, the former Vice President did suggest that there could still be sanctions.
If Approved, How Soon Could Cruises Return?
So if the U.S. policy toward Cuba were to change again under a new administration, how long afterward would it take until cruises could sail there again?
That’s a big question with no clear answer. It’s reasonable to assume that it wouldn’t happen overnight, but perhaps faster than the island originally opened up to cruise ships the first time.
The first sailing to Cuba when the original ban was lifted was announced back in July 2015, but that trip didn’t sail for nearly a year later in May 2016.
And while cruises didn’t sail to the island nation for long, there were undoubtedly relationships built between the cruise lines and local officials. Instead of starting from scratch, there should be a shallower “learning curve” for both sides to get trips back up and running.
Of course, it is too early to worry too much about timing. A number of things have to happen before cruises to Havana or other Cuban ports are on the horizon. Even so, it does look like it’s at least possible in the future, depending on how America votes.