HAVANA (Reuters) - A Spanish cruise ship docked in Havana Bay on Friday in what the Cuban government hopes is a sign of better days for its beleaguered cruise industry.
The Gemini, run by Spanish start-up Happy Cruises, pulled into its new home port for eight-day trips around the Caribbean and was welcomed by Cuban travel officials.
The reception contrasted with 2005, when then President Fidel Castro complained that cruise ships only dumped their trash at ports of call. Then he canceled a contract with an Italian firm running the island’s cruise terminals.
Officials hope the Gemini, with a capacity of 800 passengers, represents a reversal of the decline in Cuba’s cruise business that they blame on the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the Communist-led island.
British-based Thomson Cruises now uses Havana as a home port for one of its tourist voyages but is moving it to the Barbados in 2012. A few other lines include a Cuba stop.
“The operation of cruise ships in Cuba has been extremely limited by the United States embargo and, practically speaking, a regular, stable cruise operation has not been achieved,” said Lester Oliva, president of state-run tourism company Cubatur.
As recently as 2005, Cuba had 102,000 cruise visitors. But that number fell to 11,000 by 2007.
A big blow, said Oliva, was the loss of Spanish cruise line Pullmantur, whose regular service out of Cuba ended when it was bought in 2006 by U.S.-based Royal Caribbean Cruises.
The U.S. embargo, in place since 1962 with the aim of destabilizing the island’s Communist government, forbids U.S. companies in most industries from doing business with Cuba and also forbids ships that have sailed to Cuba from entering U.S. waters for six months.
Cuba is also hindered by antiquated port facilities incapable of handling large cruise ships and a lack of some tourist amenities.
Castro declared in 2005 that cruise ships were “floating hotels, floating restaurants, floating theaters, floating diversions” that “visit countries to leave their trash, their empty cans and papers for a few miserable cents.”
Under his successor, younger brother Raul Castro, the government is looking for ways to increase revenues to balance the budget and pay for social programs like free healthcare and education.
Tourism is one of the main sources of hard currency for Cuba. The government says 2.4 million tourists visited the island in 2009 and brought $2 billion to the cash-strapped economy.
It said this week the number of tourists for the first three-quarters of this year was up 3.5 percent over the same period of 2009.
Oliva said two other cruise lines, one British and the other Russian, are planning to launch operations in Cuba next year.
Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Jeff Franks and John O'Callaghan