Ships head to Cayman amid Cuba cruise ban

Air travel unlikely to be impacted

A woman waves goodbye as another takes pictures of the Empress of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean vessel, as it navigates out of the harbour in Havana, Cuba, last week. Major cruise lines on Wednesday immediately began dropping stops in Cuba from their itineraries and rerouting ships to other destinations, including Cayman, after the Trump administration’s announced new restrictions on travel to Cuba. - Photo: AP

Cuba’s loss could be Cayman’s gain, following US President Donald Trump’s decision to ban cruise ships from travelling to the communist island.

The decision, effective immediately, put an abrupt end to a burgeoning, if short-lived, Cuban cruise industry, and impacts around 800,000 passengers.

The knock-on effect is likely to mean more cruise ships diverting to the Cayman Islands.

The territory’s port director Joey Woods told the Cayman Compass he had been fielding calls since the decision was announced, including requests for ships destined for Cuban ports to re-route to Cayman.

Cruise lines plan their routes up to two years in advance and the Cayman Islands, along with Mexico, the Bahamas and Jamaica, has been earmarked as a reserve port for cruise lines forced to cancel calls to Cuba.

At the end of last week, Cayman had picked up around 40 new bookings for cruise calls over the next two years as a result of the decision. On the flip side, 23 ships cancelled visits to Cayman as cruise lines reshuffled their fleets and itineraries.

Woods said the long-term impact for Cayman would depend on the decisions of the cruise companies.

“Cruise assets are movable,” he said, “so while in the short term the deployment remains in this area [Cayman], it doesn’t mean that it will remain that way in the long term. It all depends on where the best revenue opportunities present themselves.”

Carnival Cruise Lines, which along with Royal Caribbean is responsible for the bulk of passengers coming into Cayman, expects the decision to be positive for Cayman. Roger Frizzell, the cruise line’s chief communications officer, told the Compass in an email, that at least one Cuba-bound ship was already being diverted to Cayman.

In the longer term, he said, the change, “will not have any negative impact and may ultimately provide some upside”.

It is not clear what impact, if any, the potential influx of new passengers will have on plans for cruise berthing facilities in Grand Cayman.

Both sides in the debate agree it will likely mean more passengers and, at least temporarily, neutralise the threat posed by an emerging cruise industry in Cuba.

Chris Kirkconnell, of Kirk Freeport and a member of the pro-port campaign group, said he believed the decision was good for Cayman. Though he expects the decision to be softened or reversed in the longer term, he said the uncertainty would have a slowing effect on Cuba’s emergence as a rival to Cayman.

“If anything, it is a bonus for us as a destination because it slows port development and investment in Cuba. It gives us a couple more years to get the berthing facility in place so that we are solidified on the western route and any new Cuban berthing facilities will open after us, increasing the likelihood that we will be a mainstay on any Cuban itineraries coming on western runs,” said Kirkconnell, who is also president of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce.

“Long term, it’s anyone’s guess as to where the policies will lead during the next administration but in my opinion Cuba will continue to open up in the next 5-10 years,” he added.

Johann Moxam, one of the leaders of a campaign for a referendum on the port development project, said the decision would mean more ships and more passengers for Cayman and poured cold water on government’s claims that cruise travel to George Town would decline without a dock.

He said, “This will likely result in more ships and passengers calling into the Cayman Islands without the cruise berthing project, which will help the country surpass the 2018 record-high numbers of 1.92 million cruise passengers.

“The sense of urgency and scare tactics that the current unity government and the pro-port lobbyists have used for several years that ‘we must build the dock by any means necessary’ now loses its impetus.”

The announcement from the US government last week rolls back former President Barack Obama’s decision to relax travel restrictions to Cuba.

Obama’s decision also enabled US airlines to establish routes to Cuba, something that took its toll on Cayman Airways. The airline has cut the number of flights to Havana from a high of nine per week to three a week

Fabian Whorms, CEO of Cayman Airways, said in 2018 that the entry of US airlines into the market had “changed the landscape completely”, and had cost the airline between $5 million and $6 million a year.

Though the full impact of the Trump administration’s new travel restrictions remains to be seen, it is not expected to affect commercial air travel and Whorms said this week that there would likely be no material impact for Cayman Airways.

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