American travel restrictions to Cuba are lessening, and cruise passengers are eagerly expecting their favorite line to add the long-off-limits island to its Caribbean itineraries. How long will it take before mainstream cruise ships sail into Havana?

The infrastructure issues limit the size of ships which could berth in Havana. The travel embargo still needs to be overturned by the Congress. With interest among cruise passengers and lines already high, cruising to Cuba could quickly come for smaller cruise vessels, once barriers are removed.

The CEOs of major cruise lines have spoken publicly about their willingness to visit Cuba soon. Frank Del Rio, Norwegian Cruise Line CEO, said in a TV interview, that he had itineraries locked in the "upper right hand drawer ready to go" and his unfulfilled dream was to be on the bridge of one of his ships coming into Havana harbor.

In December Carnival Corp. & plc CEO Arnold Donald told investors that there was no question if the legislative embargo was lifted, Cuba was a tremendous opportunity. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., operating lines including RCI, Azamara Club Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, has not comment on plans, but it is said that Celebrity was currently outlining potential Cuba itineraries. 

The ships that could offer Cuba itineraries would be limited in size. Vessels owned by non-American lines have been sailing to Cuba for years, though they are considered small (accommodating under 1,000 guests). Before Pullmantur and Costa Cruises were acquired by Royal Caribbean Ltd. and Carnival Corp. & plc, both homeported in Havana. Among the cruise lines offering Havana as a port stop are Fred.Olsen, Noble Caledonia, Star Clippers and Thomson Cruises.

No line has been in a better position for Cuba voyages than the named appropriately Cuba Cruise. This Canadian-based company emerged in 2013 as the only line to offer round-Cuba sailings on Louis (Celestyal) Cristal. Cuba Cruise not only visits off-the-beaten-path call ports as Cienfuegos and Antilla, but it employs many Cubans on board as stewards, wait staff or band members.

According to Dugald Wells, founder and president of Cuba Cruise, the main limitation on larger cruise ships calling in at Cuba was their draft (the distance between waterline and the bottom of ship's hull). The ports were too shallow to accommodate large vessels, and many didn’t directly face the sea, but were inland, meaning negotiating often unmapped islands and narrow channels. The  main challenges with all ports were depth and dredging, maneuverability and terminal infrastructure. Even in Havana, Louis Cristal took up the entire length of pier.

The only way round would be massive private investment by cruise lines to develop the ports, but would it be worth it? Carnival CEO Arnold Donald noted in his earnings comments, that the shallow draft of Havana port was a restriction to smaller ships, but there would be investment in Cuba ports and other infrastructure over time. Other options include tendering or floating jetties. 

Cuba is currently developing a new port with funding from Brazil. It is called Mariel and is an hour west of Havana, aimed primarily at dealing with container and commercial traffic. This could end up catering to larger ships.