(2:55 p.m. EST) -- Cruise lines could return to Cuba as early as next year with the change of administration in the U.S.
"Cuba was a very important part of our itineraries," said Tom McAlpin, president and CEO of Virgin Voyages, speaking at the International Cruise Summit in Madrid.
"We hope that, with the new administration, that will open up again. It was very good for our industry, and we look forward to being back in Cuba."
McAlpin stated that Cuba would be an ideal close-to-home destination for cruises based out of Florida.
"In the short run, before there is a vaccine that is going to be readily available, I think there will be a shift in demand for ports close to home," said McAlpin. "It puts a lot of pressure on places like the Bahamas when you're sailing out of Miami. It puts pressure on places like Key West. Key West just had a referendum vote on banning cruise lines; that is being challenged in the courts."
"Things change. As one port closes down, others open. We're optimistic about Cuba. I think that's a great opportunity for the entire industry."
Cruises to Cuba had resumed from the United States in 2016 after a 57-year absence -- but were halted by the Trump administration last year.
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Speaking at a panel discussion, cruise line executives also noted that there will be an increased need for diverse itineraries and new ports of call when cruise operations resume next year.
Larger cruise ships are not capable of docking in Havana due to berthing restrictions and a narrow turning basin.
"We see that the itineraries in a specific region will be adapted for a wider range of destinations than they are currently," said Celestyal Cruises' CEO Chris Theophilides. "Our thinking is that we need to appreciate that cruise ports will initially have less capacity…because of all the time and space requirements with implementing the COVID protocols.
"Even on transit calls, in the eastern Mediterranean where ports tend to be smaller, I think we will find there will be certain destinations that will not be able to service more than one ship at a time. It would be very hard for them to handle multiple arrivals in a single day," due to COVID-19 restrictions and protocols. "
Theophilides noted that in the initial stages of restart, it would be unrealistic to expect ports of call to operate at pre-pandemic levels, making the need to source new and diverse ports, and to vary existing itineraries, greater than ever.
Private Islands Will be Key in the Restart
Private islands will also pay a key part in any restart of cruise operations, according to Michael Bayley, President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International.
"Whether it's Royal Caribbean's Perfect day or one of our competitors private islands, I think one of the beauties of a private destination -- certainly at the beginning of a phased-in service -- is it does provide for a bubble.
"We can test all the employees; we can quarantine before they join the island -- our employees live on the island -- and we can implement all the protocols that we have on the ship on the island.
"So, it really does become kind of a bubble so for Royal in the beginning of our return to service planning, Perfect Day or Labadee in Haiti will play a very important role in terms of our first phase of return to service."
Cruise Lines To "Go Where We Are Wanted"
Costa Group CEO Michael Thamm didn't mince words when asked about the need to diversify ports of call due to potential overcrowding issues that had been a subject of much discussion during the pre-pandemic times.
"Our industry has one thousand ports," said Thamm. "And we have mobile assets. I must say, I've never sent a ship into a place where the ship was not wanted by the municipality. And I don't plan to do so."
"If places don't want our ships. Fine. We have mobile assets. We'll go elsewhere. We always have opportunities."
Thamm also stated that ports and lines have a shared responsibility for safety of both passengers and crew. Ports that want ships to be there, and communities that want them there, are beneficial to everyone.
"We should always remind ourselves that we are one industry," he said. "When a ship had been rejected by a port with a sick passenger onboard, not a COVID passenger because of fear and anxiety. We have had some of these moments in the beginning of this situation where humanity fell apart."
"We should have a degree of humanity in our industry."