Cuba cruise chip

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Cuba-Born CEO Eyes A Cuban Prize

Frank Del Rio visited Cuba last year for the first time in 54 years, he told an audience at Travel Weekly’s 2015 CruiseWorld.

He is the only one of the major cruise company CEOs born in Cuba, having immigrated to the US in 1961 following the events surrounding the Bay of Pigs debacle.

“There may be more opportunity for the cruise industry in Cuba than there is in China,” said Del Rio, adding – last year – that his company is poised to exploit a big Cuba opportunity.

Frank Del Rio cuba
Frank Del Rio, CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line. Source: CNN

The plans for seizing that opportunity emerged last week as competitor Carnival announced it will commence its inaugural cruise to Cuba on May 1st – the first cruise ship to Cuba from the US in almost 60 years – after Cuban authorities decided to allow Cuba-born passengers aboard cruise ships to enter the island nation. Previously, the Cuban regime’s restrictive policy applied to Cuba-born passengers on boats of any kind – a policy that never applied to Cuba-born travelers on planes. It was the vestige of a Cold War policy that targeted Cubans attempting to leave the country without permission.

“I am extremely pleased with the announcement that all Americans, regardless of their place of birth, will be able to travel to Cuba aboard cruise ships,” Del Rio said last week in response to Cuba’s policy change. “Our Oceania Cruises brand continues discussions with Cuban officials seeking approval to commence cruises to Cuba later this year.”

What could once have been described as two ships passing in the night, Del Rio and Cuba, his place of birth, are now in a relationship of mutual interests and affinities. Today, Cuba needs growth in its travel and tourism industry to develop its economy, and the cruise industry needs new sources of growth to please its shareholders. Cuba is what the travel industry would love to be if it could.

Del Rio’s comments about Cuba’s potential to be a source of commercial opportunity add to an emerging sense that decades of scarcity may one day yield abundance for average Cubans in the form of rapid economic growth and development funded by the travel industry’s search for authenticity in a world awash in homogeneity. With so many destinations today having the look and feel of terrestrial cruise ships, Cuba’s history, culture and forbidden fruit quality have created conditions for “reverse nostalgia” in the way people anticipate being nostalgic for a place that still exists. It’s this quality that creates urgency in affluent travelers – the demographic most sought after by Castro’s Cuba and Del Rio’s cruise business.
In any case, it’s going to be interesting to witness the convergence of the twain: Cuba’s natural gifts of culture and terrain and Del Rio’s Norwegian Cruise Lines’ $12 billion balance sheet – not to mention the entire cruise industry. Del Rio himself has earned $34 million, according to Bloomberg’s total calculated compensation as of 2015. In a New York Times article about his past, Out of Cuba, With A Suitcase, Del Rio says, “We escaped to Jamaica on Aug. 22, 1961, then flew to Miami and were processed at the Freedom Tower. After that, we moved to New Britain, Conn., and stayed with my uncle. Each of us had taken just one suitcase from Cuba because my parents thought Castro couldn’t possibly stay in power long. But we stayed in Connecticut for nine years.”
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Cuba-Born CEO Eyes A Cuban Prize was last modified: April 28th, 2016 by Simons Chase