One of the more interesting cruise experiences I’ve had this year was my voyage to Cubawith Cuba Cruise, a Canadian company that has partnered with Cyprus-based Louis Cruises to offer cruises aboard the sleek Louis Cristal that completely circumnavigate Cuba.
From the fresh beef flown down straight from the Canadian province of Alberta to the international mix of guests from Canada, Europe and South America, Cuba Cruise has a product that is unlike anything else in the cruise industry.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to Cuba Cruise President and founder Dugald Wells about how this fascinating cruise line came to be – and what’s still ahead for the line’s upcoming second season in Cuba.
You’re no stranger to the cruise business, are you?
I got started a long time ago – in 1992 – when we chartered an icebreaker from Russia and ran a cruise through the Canadian Arctic. My background is in engineering; I was doing design for icebreakers. But operating a cruise was more fun that writing engineering reports, frankly! So that’s how Cruise Northcame about. It was a partnership with the local Inuit, and we were running these expedition cruises in a fashion that would benefit them as well. Our of a crew of 50, I’d say we had 14 or 15 Inuit youth as trainees onboard the ship as guides and administrators and that sort of thing. We’d sail into these small owns that had never really seen a tourist and our passengers thought it was fabulous that we were doing all that. The locals did too.
How did Cuba Cruise come about? Was it similar to Cruise North?
A very good friend of mine – a fellow by the name of Craig Marshall – was down in Cuba looking into potential exports for the Ontario market, and one of the guys he met said, “It’s a real shame. I used to work for the [Cuban] Ministry of Transportation. We spent a lot of money refitting the Havana Pier for Pullmantur [who pulled out in 2006 following their acquisition by Royal Caribbean International]. The terminal’s empty, and they’re talking about turning it into housing…” Craig perked up, knowing my interest in shipping. He came home and told me about it. I said, ‘that sounds incredible’.
So you hadn’t considered operating a cruise venture in Cuba before then?
I’d never been to Cuba and hadn’t thought of operating there. But Craig said, “Havana’s an amazing place, you should check it out.” So the two of us went down there, and asked for a meeting with the managers of the terminal, which we got. We didn’t have an agenda; they showed us around and sat us down for a meeting. I described what I did for Cruise North and what we’d accomplished up in Nunavut with the destination and the local people. As I was saying it, it became clear it made sense to do the same thing down in Cuba. They [the port managers] seemed to think so too, and said, “When will you start?” and I said, I have no idea!”
Aside from Havana, how did you determine which ports of call would be suitable for Cuba Cruise – or which could even handle the Louis Cristal?
We did it all ourselves. We rented a car in Holguin and drove clockwise, following the coast back to Havana, just looking to see where we could bring a ship. We had heard there were some passenger piers, but we needed to see what they looked like and what their condition was. It was fabulous because Cuba is such a difficult place to get around but everywhere you go, you see people along the highway, so we were picking people up who would – by sign language or rough Spanish – show us all the craziest things. We saw this marvelous country that was unlike anything I’d ever seen in the Caribbean. It was like being on another continent.
That’s how I felt when I was there with Cuba Cruise in January. I’d never been to Cuba before either – and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone if there wasn’t a cruise that goes down there.
You know, there’s over a million Canadians going down [to Cuba] and all they do is sit in this little resort and never really leave. I guess my modus operandi is to always to look for something that I’d like to do. Taking a car for two weeks and picking up strangers is not for most people, but that’s how we got going and started scouting locations. It was a gradual process; we went back and forth to Cuba a few times to develop a product plan to determine what it would look like, how it would work and who it world work for.
Once you knew where you wanted Cuba Cruise to go, how did you proceed?
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