Cruise-Ship Tourists Add Little to Economy

The Italian cruise line MSC now has more competition as  several cruise lines stop in Havana.

Article by Katrina Ruggiero; Photos by Yulia Rock

As the cruise ships dock in Sierra Maestra Terminal, they cast a shadow over the nearby Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana and its early 17th century church, eclectic architecture and marble fountain. Waves of enthusiastic tourists make their way through the square to explore the many shops selling keepsakes, paintings, clothing and souvenirs.

The cruises that dock at Sierra Maestra carry 800 to 2,000 passengers each. MSC, an Italian cruise line, has been sailing to Cuba since 2015. Other cruise ships that dock in Old Havana are operated by Carnival and Royal Caribbean, two American companies that have been traveling to Cuba from Miami for less than a year. While President Obama and Raul Castro agreed to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba December 2014, it took a year for the United States to allow the resumption of U.S cruise lines traveling to Cuba.

Passengers from cruise ships usually visit Old Havana, with its many beautiful squares.

Many local business owners in Old Havana said they were delighted with cruise ships bearing tourists, though how much economic benefit they actually bring is unclear. “Many of the tourists just look and don’t buy,” said Hernesto Diaz, an art vendor in the Plaza de Armas Square. “It’s still good because there is an interchanging of people and they’re learning about each other’s culture.”

“When the cruises come I can make a little more money,” said Thai Martinez,  who works at a souvenir shop in Old Havana. “It all depends on the cruise ship and the people; they just come look and don’t buy anything most of the time.”

Economists say  that cruise lines bring “low-value” tourism—travelers who often spend only a few hours on land, buying relatively little in local shops and restaurants. Tourists who stay overnight in the Caribbean spend 13 times more money than cruise goers, according to “Opportunities for Sustainable Development in Cuba,” a 2014 report by the  Brookings Institution, or $994 per visit on average vs. $77 for travelers on cruise ships.

Flower sellers in traditional dress sell their wares to tourists in Old Havana.