MSC (1)HAVANA, Dec. 3th  (FT)  MSC Cruises is to dock a second ship in Havana next year as it looks to gain a lead in the race for Cuban tourism and build on its investment in new ships.

The privately owned cruise operator will become the first global company with a ship in Cuba when the MSC Opera — which set sail from Genoa on Wednesday — arrives in Havana later this month.

The company has said it will now send a second ship, the MSC Armonia, to Cuba’s largest port after experiencing high levels of demand from European customers.

“There was such a good response, especially — and this surprised us — from many European markets,” said Gianni Onorato, chief executive of MSC Cruises.

“The idea is to grow more and that’ll depend a lot on the level of growth in the infrastructure that can receive the ships . . . our commitment in Cuba we hope will encourage authorities to invest in ports.”

Mr Onorato said conversations with the Cuban authorities began in January and plans for the second ship received a boost when Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, visited the Caribbean island in October.

American liners are still subject to US restrictions that limit travel to licensed volunteer programmes.

But as US-Cuban relations thaw following a truce between US President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro last December, leisure industries are rushing to take advantage of Cuba’s potential as a relatively untouched tourist destination.

Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company by market share, has received approval from the US government to send a cruise liner to Havana that combines social work and travel, but it has yet to receive the go-ahead from Cuban authorities.

MSC Armonia is part of a €5.1bn investment plan by MSC Cruises to increase its fleet by seven ships to a total of 19 by 2021.

One of these will set sail for Shanghai where it will serve the China market, which Mr Onorato said will be part of MSC’s long-term strategy. “Both China and the Caribbean represent the future,” he said.

MSC Opera and MSC Armonia can hold about 2,600 passengers each and according to the company cost €700m-€1bn to build.