Wednesday, July 21, 2010

No Cuba Libre From Our Brit Cousins

Richard Sasso, CEO and President of MSC Cruises USA (pictured here), is one of the cruise industry’s savviest executives and when he speaks it's wise to pay attention. According to a recent article in the Palm Beach Daily News, Sasso’s opinion is that “Even if the United States lifts the travel ban to Cuba, don’t expect Havana to be a port of call for American cruise lines any time soon.”

The Palm Beach paper reported that Sasso is heartened by the recent news that congressional support for ending the American travel ban to the island nation appears to be on the rise since reports by Cuba’s Roman Catholic Church indicate the government there has agreed to release 52 political prisoners. However, while Sasso said he foresees the day when Cuba will be on every major cruise lines’ Caribbean port roster, he is quoted as saying, “Right now, though, they lack the infrastructure and facilities to handle the huge influx of vessels and visitors. It’ll probably take one, two or maybe three years before the necessary developments are completed. Lots of work has to be done. We also have to be sure there’ll be no political backlash.”

Not everyone is happy with the prospect of North American-based cruise ships calling on Cuba some day. Two of my media colleagues in the UK have expressed their opinions in blog articles this week and I must say I was surprised by their negativity. Travel writer Jane Archer said in her blog, “I can't bear to think of the place becoming yet another Caribbean island clone, with overpriced jewellery shops, tacky t-shirt emporiums and liquor stores right by the port so Americans can buy their souvenirs without having to see too many locals.” Ouch. The other writer, John Honeywell, whose blogs appear under the name Captain Greybeard, was a bit less harsh, but stated that his countrymen (who are presently visiting Cuba on UK-based cruise lines), would “be able to tell Mr Sasso—and the rest of the American cruise industry—that the Cuban experience is more enjoyable now than it will be after the island develops the infrastructure he thinks it will need to meet the demands of US passengers.”

Gee, it almost sounds as if the Brits want to keep the Yanks out of Cuba for fear that we’ll “spoil” it by boosting the Cuban economy with our tourist dollars. We wonder who the Cubans would rather have visit. Freely spending Americans who would help to build their infrastructure, or stingy Brits who prefer to see an impoverished 1950s-style Havana remain that way? You decide.


Dan said...

Ooooh, that's pretty harsh to call the Brits stingy. We just find other places to spend our money such as local restaurants offering typical Cuban food or somewhere else where we can sample the real Cuban way of life rather than something commercialised which is geared towards American tourists. Part of Havana's culture and history is being stuck in this 'impoverished 1950's-style timewarp and everybody else likes it just the way it is - British tourists flock there month upon month, year upon year. So what right do the American's have to think they could change it? It is such a narrow-minded, tunnel-visioned comment to suggest that Cuba hasn't got the infrastructure or facilities for the influx of vessels and visitors. The British ships have been going there for years and manage perfectly well. Having said all of this, maybe it will do the American tourists some good to see another part of the world that functions independently - every single American tourist that I have come accross is surprised that we even have electricity in Europe!

Linda Coffman, AKA Cruise Diva said...

Dan, I defer to your first-hand experience because I've never been to Cuba. However, I do have Cuban friends whose families back on the island would disagree with your assertion that they like everything just the way it is. I contend that they'd be very happy to see the arrival of American tourists on cruise ships and the positive changes they'd see.

If I may, I'd like to give you an example of US-based cruise lines making a positive difference on a Caribbean island--Grand Turk. When Carnival Corporation developed the Grand Turk Cruise Center they pumped a lot of money into the nation's infrastructure. Roads were improved, local tour operators were able to buy safe buses, vans, and taxis. The islanders had the funds to invest in upgrading their museum, make repairs to the lighthouse, and develop other attractions. Has that free spending "spoiled" Grand Turk? I went ashore there on one of the first cruise ships to arrive and was there again not long ago. The island hasn't changed much outside the Cruise Center. The people are still friendly, the bird watching is still spectacular, the beaches, reefs, marshes, and mangroves are untouched. What has changed is that the residents have more opportunity for jobs and a better standard of living.

I realize that Cuba has resorts and that UK ships have been calling there for years. However, it would take expanded infrastructure to handle additional ships, particularly large ones. Sasso is on the money in that regard. I still contend that the UK bloggers came across as arrogant in their assertion that Americans ruin everything they touch.

Not all Americans are the rubes you seem to think they are. Of course Europeans have electricity. But they light their homes thanks to Thomas Edison, the American who invented the light bulb.

Greg Gross, I'm Black and I Travel said...

I doubt there will be much hesitation from cruise lines to call on Cuba. Indeed, I think they may need US tourist demand for Cuban visits to help pay for all the new ships they've ordered in recent years. If anything, I do believe that several of the new mega-ships were ordered with Cuba quietly but firmly in mind.

Cuba has maintained its "impoverished 1950's-style time warp" not necessarily by intent, but because our silly embargo left them little choice. Not everyone wants to maintain their nations as living museums so the Dans of the world can travel the world feeling superior about themselves. That said, it will be up to the Cubans to balance the need for modernized infrastructure with preserving their culture in the face of US hyper-commercialization. I believe they're perfectly capable of doing that.

As for the British bloggers and their travel snobbery, well, let's just call that one more reason to celebrate the Fourth of July.