Cuba's cruise business sinking under U.S. ban

Campaign News | Wednesday, 23 January 2008

HAVANA, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Cuba's cruise business has been been paralyzed by U.S. sanctions that deter cruise ships from visiting during their tours of the Caribbean, the director of Havana's passenger terminal said on Wednesday.

The cigar and rum shop is closed in the deserted $10 million terminal and no ships are expected to moor for days.

Outside, horse and carriage drivers waiting to carry fewer tourists around the colonial streets of Old Havana blame U.S. President George W. Bush for tightening the screws of the trade embargo against Cuba's communist government.

"The reason is the U.S. blockade, which does not allow ships to visit Cuban ports," said Jose Antonio Lopez, general manager of the state company that run Cuba's four cruise terminals.

"This is paralyzed," he said. "All cruise operators want to come to Havana and thousands of cruises sail around Cuba, but they are penalized if they visit," Lopez said. "Even the ones most interested in visiting Cuba don't dare do so."

Under the U.S. Torricelli Act of 1992, ships sailing to Cuba are barred from entering U.S. ports for six months after that. This effectively rules out most of the Caribbean cruise industry, which is based in Miami.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro has not helped much with his criticism of the cruise business. A year before he fell ill and dropped out of public sight in 2006, Castro called cruise ships "floating hotels" that left behind "rubbish, empty cans and paper" but little income.

The Cuban cruise trade peaked in 2005 with 102,440 passengers visiting Cuba on cruisers that put in 122 calls at Cuban ports, Lopez said. Last year that was down to 11,000 visitors from just 23 dockings.

Most of them were sailing on the "Holiday Dream," owned by Spanish operator Pullmantour. But Pullmantour stopped sailing to Cuba in October 2006 after it was bought by Miami-based Royal Caribbean, the world's second-largest cruise company.

German cruise ships of the Hapag-Lloyd line, owned by shipping and tourism group TUI AG, made 15 calls last year, but dropped Cuba when itinerary changes included a U.S. port, Lopez said.

Notwithstanding Castro's criticism, the cruise business generated $15 million for Cuba at its height in 2005, from the supply of goods and services including fuel, water and garbage collection to revenue from restaurants, bars, taxis and souvenirs.

Cuba has port capacity to receive 1 million cruise ship passengers a year and can handle 600 port calls, Lopez said.

Havana can dock cruise ships of up to 70,000 tonnes, but a $15 million plan for a new cruiser pier at Casablanca across Havana Bay is on hold. (Reporting by Anthony Boadle, editing by Todd Eastham)

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