Victory Cruise Lines set to offer longer, more intimate cruises to Cuba

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Victory Cruise Lines Matias J. Ocner

Victory Cruise Lines CEO Bruce Nierenberg sits in his downtown Miami office. Photo by Matias J. Ocner.

It’s taken eight years, but cruise industry veteran Bruce Nierenberg is finally set to begin U.S. passenger service to Cuba. His newest venture, Victory Cruise Lines, is scheduled to launch Miami-Cuba cruises in February, offering longer trips with more stops on the island than its U.S. rivals.

The timing seems favorable. With new Trump administration rules expected to make it harder for Americans to visit Cuba without a pre-packaged group itinerary, the cruise industry is set to benefit. Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, and Norwegian Cruise Line already sail from Florida ports, and have announced voyages through 2019.

Unlike its larger competitors, Victory offers trips on its intimate 202-passenger Victory I ship. Starting Feb. 8, two-week trips from Miami will stop overnight in Havana, Trinidad, and Santiago de Cuba, and make day calls in Cienfuegos and the scuba diving-haven of Maria La Gorda. All-inclusive packages start at $8,957 per person double-occupancy, and include alcoholic drinks aboard and excursions ashore, said president and CEO Nierenberg.

“Most cruise ships are too big to call anywhere except Havana, and no cruise product has as many multi-day stops in Cuba as Victory I,” Nierenberg said. “And with our program, we have all the tours that we offer planned in advance and documented to comply with U.S. rules.”

A cruise executive for four decades, Nierenberg began exploring Cuba business in 2009 after hearing rumblings of a U.S.-Cuba détente. His initial United Caribbean Lines venture received a U.S. license for ferry service to Cuba in 2015, but Havana opted to table Florida ferries for the time being.

So, when Danish company Clipper Group SA approached him in early 2016 to form Victory Cruise Lines, and sail one of its ships around Canada in summer and around Cuba in winter, Nierenberg jumped at the chance. The new venture began sailings July 2016 on a ship formerly called St. Laurent and re-christened Victory I. The initial 10-day trips on the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes appealed mainly to affluent Baby Boomers—the same market targeted for trips to Cuba.

Approvals for multiple Cuban ports were acquired this year. Nierenberg is especially proud of the stop in coral reef-rich Maria La Gorda in western Pinar del Rio province, a destination off-limits for larger ships.

Cruise analysts see smooth sailing for Victory and other U.S. lines taking small ships to Cuba, including Pearl Seas Cruises, which offers 10-night voyages from Fort Lauderdale on a 210-passenger vessel. “These types of companies are essentially niche tour operators and should have no problem filling their ships,” said analyst Stewart Chiron, known as The Cruise Guy.

A small ship visiting multiple Cuban destinations appeals to U.S. travelers who don’t want to haul luggage between different places, often on older roads, said Chris Gray Faust, senior editor at CruiseCritic.com. “Because of Cuba’s infrastructure issues,” he said, “cruising is still the best way to see different parts of the country.”

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