Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings was close to getting permission to cruise to Cuba, company's president and CEO Frank Del Rio said on Sunday at a news conference onboard the newest cruise ship of Regent Seven Seas, Explorer.
"I'm literally waiting for the phone to ring to get the final, final approval from the Cuban government," he said.
Del Rio added two ships from company's Oceania fleet were ready to go. Oceania Cruises' Regatta would sail in Cuba by the end of the year, and Marina would start sailing itineraries there in 2017. Cuba currently lacks the infrastructure to support mega cruise ships, so the 684-passenger Regatta and 1,258-passenger Marina are small enough to work with what exists there now.
Del Rio said the ships would sail a variety of itineraries, including circumnavigation of Cuba, with stops in Cienfuegos and Havana, which he said would be the "star" port. He also said Cuba would be part of some Panama Canal cruises.
The race to get cruise ships to Cuba is heating up as restrictions on travel to the country from the U.S. have eased under the Obama administration. Carnival Corp. broke the ice for U.S. cruise lines, becoming the first to get approval from the Cuban government earlier this year. The corporation's line, Fathom Travel, has been sending passengers to Cuba on its cruise ship, Adonia, since May. Other major cruise lines are waiting for permission.
Del Rio hinted that ship's from NCLH's biggest brand, Norwegian Cruise Line, would be in the mix to sail to Cuba as well once permission is granted but declined to comment further on it while still promising "surprises" on that front.
Also at the news conference, Del Rio discussed the challenge of putting a luxury cruise ship into Asia, an area that is a burgeoning cruise market. Many cruise lines have or are creating purpose-built ships for the Chinese market, including Norwegian, which will send new-build Norwegian Joy there next year.
Del Rio said a major roadblock currently for the luxury market is that Chinese passengers sail only short itineraries - three to four days - and that luxury ships are designed for longer sailings. He said he expects Chinese passengers to begin to embrace longer sailings, perhaps by 2020, when Regent Seven Seas' next new ship is slated to debut. That ship will be a twin to Seven Seas Explorer.