U.S. cruise ships hear the call of Cuba

Now that the U.S. has begun steps to normalize relations with Cuba, a lot of American industries have been working on their plans to enter — or reenter — that market. And one sector ready to sail into those new economic waters is the multibillion-dollar cruise ship industry.

U.S. tourists are still formally banned from visiting the communist country, and U.S.-based cruise lines are also prohibited from traveling to the island, although several European and Canadian-owned cruise lines make port stops in Havana.

But tens of thousands of American citizens travel to Cuba annually despite the restrictions. And the potential of U.S. cruise ship sailing to Cuba were a big topic of conversation at the annual cruise ship industry convention in Miami last week.

“Once the rules allow us to go legally, once the embargo is lifted, which is the main restriction … yes, we’re ready,” Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) told the Sun-Sentinel. “And I would bet that all of us in this town are ready to move at a drop of a hat.”

Despite reports of shipboard illnesses and other concerns, the industry has rebounded from its recession lows. According to a recent report issued by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the industry’s passenger capacity has had a 20 percent compound annual growth rate since 2013 and is expected to reach 2.2 million this year.

The cruise line industry is also a big money-maker for the U.S. economy,generating over $42 billion in total economic activity in 2012. And the websiteCruise Critic quoted Arnold Donald, president and CEO at Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL), telling investors last December that a newly opened Cuba would present a “tremendous opportunity” for his industry.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand to visit Cuba,” he added. “It would allow us some very fuel-efficient itineraries. Also, it would provide new itineraries for those who love to go to the Caribbean.”

Tourism is an important part of the Cuban government’s revenues as well, bringing in $2.3 billion to its economy in 2013. And Cuba “has long been in the crosshairs of the American cruise lines,” Robin Farley, a financial analyst with UBS who follows cruise companies, recently told theTravel Pulse website.

But even when the U.S. travel embargo is formally lifted and restrictions are eased enough to allow cruise ships to enter Cuba from the U.S., several big challenges remain.

“There are a number of factors for consideration before a cruise line would commit to adding a destination to an itinerary,” Elinore Boeke, CLIA’s public affairs director, told CBS MoneyWatch. “With Cuba, these include infrastructure and port facilities, and regulatory and policy considerations. The industry continues to closely monitor developments regarding U.S.-Cuba relations.”

Despite those obstacles, it appears the American cruise ship industry is primed and ready to include Cuba as a future destination.

“My unfulfilled dream is to be on the bridge of one of my ships coming into Havana harbor,” Norwegian Cruise Line’s Del Rio, whose family left Cuba when he was a child, told CBS station WFOR-TV last month.

(From: CBS News)