HavanaNext winter Cuba Cruise will launch Havana-Montego Bay service on the chartered Louis Cristal with most passengers sourced from Canada.

“There are over one million Canadians going to Cuba every winter, and a lot of airlift,” said Dugald Wells, president of Cuba Cruise.   

“The natural evolution is a floating resort,” he continued, saying the island was short on hotel space and there were more and more day excursions available outside resorts.

“We are coming in with a product that is Cuba-centric and competitive to the all-inclusive resorts.”

Wells hopes the major Canadian tour operators will package the cruise with air, and using Montego Bay as a second turn-around point is also strategic, with heavy charter traffic into Jamaica.

Early projections had up to 80 percent of the passengers coming from Canada, while Louis will also sell the itineraries directly, with the ship sailing from December through Mid-March.

“The U.S. market is not part of our strategy,” added Wells.

The project has been in the works for some three years, when Wells discovered the Cuban government was looking at turning a recently refurbished passenger ship terminal in Havana into housing.

Wells said there were piers in four ports, and the rest required tender operations, as some calls do not have any infrastructure.

Ports of call include Havana, Cayo Coco, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Montego Bay and Cienfuegos.

Montego Bay, serving as an airlift point, will also be used for fuel and provisioning, while the company will take advantage of the refrigerated container service between Halifax and Havana, which will be supplemented with local suppliers.

Louis will run the onboard hotel, featuring Canadian-style food, drinks and Canadian sports on TV.

The majority of the entertainment and front-of-house staff will be hired from Cuba, added Wells.

After looking at ships extensively, Wells settled on 1,452-passenger 25,611-ton Cristal.

“It was so well maintained compared to other ships,” he said. “It’s close to the maximum size we can bring into these ports. With a smaller ship the per capita costs are high.”

Pricing will start at $586 (Canadian) per person for an inside cabin. With 12 different categories, ticket prices can go up to $1,500 for a New Years voyage.

In addition, a bar package is available.

Other revenues will come from bar sales, the casino and shore excursions, with Wells adding that he is the first to be allowed to open a casino in Cuba (although not while the ship is in port).

Key to success will be operation’s shore excursion product.

“We have up to six different options in some of the Cuban ports,” said Wells.

Those tours have been developed with the local tourism ministry.

“We have a terrific asset with the Cuban people, they are ready, and Cuba has untapped potential.”

Describing the Louis team as “straight-up guys,” Wells, who has an adventure/expedition cruise background, said if the market grows, Louis has the tonnage to send more ships in on short notice. Louis is a partner in the venture.

The above article was printed in the 2013 Cruise Industry News Quarterly Magazine, Spring 2013 edition.