Five years ago Toronto homebuilder Craig Marshall planned to import lumber to Cuba. Over the course of his
negotiations with his Cuban counterpart in Old Havana one day, they drove past the newly renovated cruise ship terminal in the old port. The Cuban lamented that the government was about to convert the terminal into housing because they could not find any cruise lines willing to run operations into Cuba.
Enter Dugald Wells, a long-time Canadian friend of Marshall’s and a twenty-five year veteran of the cruise line industry. For years Wells had been successfully running smaller cruise ships into northern Canada ports working closely with the Inuit and generating opportunities for the locals through employment and revenues generated from ground excursions, port services and spending by the cruise-line’s guests. Instead of importing lumber (that venture stalled before take off) why not bring a cruise line to Cuba? Marshall proposed the idea to Wells and the Cuba Cruise was born! Neither Marshall or Wells really knew Cuba very well but they knew it was big and had several other possible ports of call besides just Havana. So they hopped on a plane to Cienfuegos, Cuba, brought an old GPS device (not recommended for the average traveller as they are usually confiscated at customs), rented a SUV and set into unknown Cuban territory to see if this kernel of an idea had any sea legs. Soon the two of them found themselves having the time of their lives: driving through lush countryside, exploring potential ports, eating in paladares and depending on the kindness of strangers to help get them from one town to another. By the end of their tour they really felt they had the potential for a truly unique cruising opportunity and were ready to begin negotiations with the Cubans.
At first, the Cubans did not know what to make of their proposal or whom in the government and which department should be making the decisions so the initial meetings were a bit cumbersome. However, once the Cubans figured out that the department that handled the ports should be in charge, the motors started to spin rather quickly. Cuba Cruise is not a joint venture with the Cubans (as many foreign ventures in Cuba are) but is simply a cruise ship that enters and exits Cuba at every port of call.
Next it was off to find an appropriate ship. Many cruise ships were investigated as potential candidates before they settled on the Louis Cristal, originally a Finnish vessel that had been spending recent summers running cruises throughout the Greek isles. In the winter it would normally be idle. Louis Cruises were so impressed with the venture’s potential, it was decided that they would become equal partners in the entire operation. This was ideal for the Canadians as it reduced their financial risk while giving them an experienced partner.
After three years of planning, the first Cuba Cruise season of seven day cruises was launched in December 2013. The first arrival of the ship in Antilla was such an important event that the town’s mayor had declared a holiday to greet the cruise-liner and the entire village had turned out to watch the ship’s arrival. They had never seen a cruise ship before! When passengers arrived on land they found the villagers were celebrating in the streets with live music, dancing and barbecues going full tilt.
Now in its second season, the partners are encouraged with the momentum that has begun to build as their bookings improve week by week. Plus with the recent announcement from the U.S. encouraging more normalized relations, interest in travelling to Cuba has spiked significantly. “There is no better way to see the entire country today than a seven day trip around the entire island,” boasts Wells.
Words and photos by AJ Twist. Follow A.J. Twist as he takes the Cuba Cruise beginning Monday. firstname.lastname@example.org