After the White House announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba after more than 50 years, industries on both sides have been gearing up for the upcoming boom in touristic and economic exchanges. Developments continue apace – as recently as mid-February, the US and Cuban governments unveiled an agreement to resume commercial air traffic, and it was recently declared that US President Barack Obama will visit Cuba in March – the first sitting US president to do so in almost 90 years.

Plans are also underway at lower altitude. Several big players in the cruise industry, including Carnival Corporation, MSC Cruises, and Norwegian, have already announced their intention to build new routes to a selection of destinations up and down the island.

The first cruises will, however, mark more than just the rehabilitation of a political relationship between the two nations. Due to strict regulations imposed by the Cuban Government on incoming tourism, a new type of ‘social impact’ cruise will be launched, aimed at immersing tourists in the cultural, historic and humanitarian aspects of Cuba.

Under the General People-To-People (P2P) licence granted to visitors by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control, tourism to the country has been confined to 12 criteria of visitation, including educational, cultural, humanitarian, religious and research activities.

Cruise companies have embraced this regulation by introducing a range of ‘cultural voyages’ departing from Miami between February and May 2016. The circuits will include the ports of Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santiago among their stops, and will see tourists immerse themselves in the local culture via a range of volunteer programmes and organised activities.

While the voyages are now open for booking at hefty prices, cruise applications are still under revision and subject to final approval by the Cuban Government. However, as relations between the US and Cuba strengthen by the day, a vote of approval is expected sometime late this year.

But how will the opening of a previously walled-up destination impact the wider cruising industry and is Cuba’s infrastructure prepared to handle the influx of visitors?

Havana nights

Cruise ship tourism to the island has been soaring to unprecedented levels over the past few years; since 2012, it has grown five-fold, Cuba’s Transportation Ministry reported in July, with passenger numbers jumping from 6,700 to 37,500. Since the start of 2015, over two million international passengers have sailed to Cuba with a selection of small to medium-sized international operators, including Canada-based Cuba Cruise, Saga, Fred Olsen and Noble Caledonia.

And while closed borders have kept US visitors largely at bay since 1960, the lifting of the embargo is bound to bring further growth.

"There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that this will become the number-one destination in the Caribbean," says Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines (UCL), one of the companies currently in talks with Cuba regarding its cruise licence application.

UCL is already offering a regular ferry service between the two countries, but under a partnership with Haimark they aim to offer longer voyages aboard Haimark’s St Laurent ship, which Nierenberg describes as an "accommodation-transportation type of vessel".

"Cuba is logistically and geographically the perfect location for cruise itineraries because there isn’t a ship that leaves from a port in Florida and doesn’t go somewhere close to Cuba for any of its itineraries, whether going east or west," Nierenberg says.

"Concerns are also growing regarding the local port and hotel infrastructure, and its ability to accommodate the ships and the huge numbers of visitors."

The jubilation is echoed by Norwegian’s Cuban-born president and CEO Frank del Rio. "I am excited by the prospect of expanding trade with Cuba across a broad spectrum of industries, particularly the cruise and travel industries, where there is tremendous potential," he said at the recent ‘Cuba Opportunity Summit’ hosted by the Wharton School of Business.

Although a variety of US-based operators have announced sailing dates to Cuba, only Carnival has actually made dedicated berthing arrangements at the Port of Miami. Even though negotiations for similar rights between the company and the Cuban Government are still ongoing, it looks likely to become the first major cruise line to travel to Cuba from the US via its newly-launched Fathom brand. According to a company spokesperson, "Fathom will send 710 travellers on every trip – thousands of travellers a year – to communities in need, providing tremendous scale that will sustain several ongoing programmes."

However, some scepticism arose regarding the advertised level of demand. A survey by US-based agency Travel Leaders Group sampled 1,034 travel agents in September 2015 and reported that while nearly 42% had a customer express an interest in visiting Cuba, only 2.9% had actually seen it result in a booking. These figures seem to indicate that a ‘wait and see approach’ to visiting Cuba that doesn’t seem to have relaxed since in May, when only 8.8% of passenger surveyed stated that they would travel to Cuba immediately if the relevant restrictions were lifted. A further 14.9% stated they "would go when they believed Cuba was ready for US tourists", according to an agency press release.

But industry insiders disagree. Fathom believes that "many people long to make a difference in the world and within themselves, but have no idea where to begin."

"Globally, great things are happening to address some of the social and environmental needs in the world, but there is far more to be done," the company said in a statement. "Fathom exists to connect people’s passions and gifts with the needs in the world to help them navigate this complex journey and to unleash the greatness in every person."

Nierenberg is certain that a strong pull factor for a lot of people will be visiting the place "before it becomes ‘Americanised’".

"We will be the number-one source of tourism to Cuba someday and when that happens, Americans will bring all their good and bad parts," he says. "So there are a lot of Americans, especially in the affluent parts, where people have the money to spend, who are actually saying to themselves: ‘I’d actually like to go to Cuba before everything opens up so I can get a feeling for the real country.’"

But are they ready?

While this is cause for excitement within the industry, concerns are also growing regarding the local port and hotel infrastructure, and its ability to accommodate the ships and the huge numbers of visitors.

"The cruise industry has ships from 100 to 5,000 passengers. Are these ports ready for the big mega-ships? Absolutely not," says Nierenberg. "I don’t even think you could fit the largest vessel in the port of Havana these days. The major cruise operators are working very closely with the Cuban Government on the development plans of whatever harbour facilities are necessary."

One very good move, he explains, was Cuba’s initiative to move its commercial shipping to Mariel, a $900-million free-trading zone that opened last year 50km away from Havana, while leaving Havana harbour "pretty much entirely for passenger traffic".

Operators will need to assess the country’s port infrastructure to determine what developments may be required, but a belief exists that current facilities will be able to accommodate a number of ships.

"Cuba has not had anybody spend money on its tourism infrastructure for ships in 50 to 60 years," Nierenberg explains. "It’s very important to Cuba for when they start the ferry service to have people […] who know how to develop new destinations, who are comfortable in dealing with ports that have not had a service like this in 60 years. They need people who understand how difficult that is to do."

Over the past 40 years, Nierenberg has developed destinations in the Bahamas and Texas, as well as Cape Canaveral, the second-largest port in the world for cruise customers, and Cozumel, Mexico, currently the number-one destination for cruise ships.

"When I went to these places in the beginning, they had nothing; they didn’t even have a pier to anchor," he says. "So understanding how difficult that is, is a big part of the success, and I stressed to our friends in Cuba that no matter who you choose, please make sure that they’ve done this before, several times, and in spite of that, they have a great deal of respect for how difficult this is. It’s very important for Cuba to do that."

As Cuba is on course to become the next main attraction in the Caribbean, its potential to shape and benefit the US cruising industry is undeniable.

But the new tourism influx is also hoped to bring economic, educational and social benefits for the country and its people.

Aboard Fathom, for example, each day ashore will be programmed with at least eight hours of permitted activity for all 710 passengers, the brand says.

"The overarching objective of the Fathom experience in Cuba is to support cultural exchange and economic growth for the Cuban people," the company said. This will be achieved through a range of sample activities, such as visits to local elementary schools, tours of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, organised discussions with local preservation experts about the country’s architectural history and private conversations about the entrepreneurial climate in Cuba, among others.

While there is no doubt such interactions will certainly open up dialogue and help build a bridge of understanding between the US and Cuba, UCL has also been focusing on creating a lasting impact by supporting the local economy and education.

Over the past two years, UCL has been working closely with the University of Havana’s department of tourism education, which currently suffers from limited resources due to the prolonged embargo. As a result, UCL is sponsoring a Maritime Academy at the University of Havana, "where Cuban nationals will be trained to work on ships, everything from captains to hotel executives, creating jobs and training for them to work on not only our ships, but ships all over the world".

"We’ve really become a part of the culture there instead of just a business trying to make money," Nierenberg explains.

With a host of other collaborations on the planning board, such as interchange programmes between colleges in Florida and Havana, and complimentary ferry transportation for the universities’ students, UCL hopes for a strong long-term relationship with its "closest neighbour".

"That’s the kind of thing that makes countries grow together," Nierenberg concludes. "There isn’t any reason not to have a constructive relationship with them and generations in the future, the ones that are currently in colleges and university.

"We can make them feel good about each other and open up the doors, and that’s the best way to really build for the future."