In a week of historic firsts between the United States and Cuba, Carnival Corporation gained approval Monday to sail from Miami into the port of Havana in May.
After months of uncertainty, Cuban authorities from Havanatur Celimar and other agencies approved the cruise company’s bid for its inaugural Cuba voyage, departing May 1, marking the first time in more than 50 years that a cruise ship can travel from the United States to Cuba.
“Today we’ve made history,” said Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., in a call from Havana. “This is a historic opportunity, and we know there is pent-up demand amongst Americans who want to experience Cuba.”
Travelers will be able to sail to the island aboard Carnival Corp.’s Fathom brand, which provides cultural exchange programs — one of the 12 approved categories of travel to the island nation. The line’s 704-passenger Adonia will take guests on seven-day itineraries around Cuba.
Carnival’s announcement came only hours after President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban president Raul Castro during President Obama’s historic visit to the island — a first for a sitting U.S. president in nearly nine decades. The thaw in relations between the two nations, which began in December 2014, has led to numerous policy changes that have made it easier to travel to Cuba and, ultimately, to sail a cruise ship there.
Tara Russell, president of Fathom, said Carnival Corp. and Fathom have been working closely with the Cuban government to gain approval. The U.S. granted the cruise line permission in July to sail into Cuba for social impact trips.
Part of gaining Cuban approval was surveying if infrastructure at the island’s ports could support cruise ships. Fathom’s Adonia, which is being transferred from Carnival’s P&O Cruises in the United Kingdom, is small enough to dock at the Cuban ports included in its weeklong voyages.
The sailings will leave from PortMiami on Sundays and circumnavigate the island, with stops in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos. Prices start at $1,800 per person, plus a Cuban visa, fees, taxes and port expenses.
Russell said the cruise line will handle visa and affidavit processing for passengers, including those who book in the 40 days before Fathom’s first sailing to the island.
In its inaugural year of sailing, Fathom will offer Cuban-themed on-board experiences, including Cuban- and Caribbean-inspired music and film, Cuban-inspired menus and conversational Spanish lessons.
“We are humbled and honored to offer a one-of-a-kind Cuban experience to our travelers,” Russell said from Havana. “It’s a time now that we will never have in the future.”
Interested travelers can still snag a trip. The cruise line has not yet sold out its sailings on its inaugural and subsequent voyages, said Carnival Corp. spokesman Roger Frizzell. But Russell said spots are expected to go quickly following the announcement.
Travel agent Ralph Santisteban, a CruiseOne franchise owner based in Kendall, said local interest for Fathom has been minimal due to existing travel restrictions. Travelers who were born in Cuba and later became U.S. citizens — which applies to a large swath of Miami’s Cuban population — cannot go on the cultural exchange trips Fathom offers.
“Here in Miami, selling the product, we’ve run into a little more of a resistance because of the fact that many of the people that would like to go to Cuba may have been born there. Even though they are U.S. citizens, they can’t be part of these people-to-people trips,” Santisteban said. “However, outside the community I’ve seen that interest is significantly greater.”
In other parts of the U.S., travelers have been drawn to potential trips with Fathom because they offers an unconventional opportunity to visit a new destination for Americans, Santisteban said.
“Cuba has been a mystery for all these years and Cuba has brought with it a mystique,” he said. “The only thing is that there is a bit of a downturn, is when people find out they can’t sit on the beach with a coconut full of piña colada, but people hope that someday that soon will be happening.”
Tours will be focused on “volun-tourism,” experiences that can range from meeting with Cuban groups and exchanging cultural information to teaching locals English.
And despite costing more than twice the price of a cruise on one of the three major cruise lines — seven-day May cruises on Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line are $700 to $1,000 per person — Santisteban said travelers are still eager.
“It’s going to be a very intensely cultural experience and people are willing to pay for that experience,” he said.
Geneva-based MSC Cruises already has a ship in Cuba — its 2,679-passenger MSC Opera sails from Havana in the winter season to the Cayman Islands, Mexico and Jamaica. The cruise line is adding a second ship to Cuba in December 2016.
At last week’s Seatrade Cruises Global conference in Fort Lauderdale, MSC’s executive chairman, Pierfrancesco Vago, said MSC has experienced the complexity of bringing Cuban infrastructure up to speed with the demands of the cruise industry but added that conditions are improving as officials become more educated.
“They have a good understanding, a good feeling, that they have to improve the infrastructure,” Vago said.
The opening of Cuba, cruise lines predicted at the conference, will have a ripple affect on the rest of the already-saturated Caribbean market.
“It’s creating a halo of interest,” said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises. “People are interested in Cuba and the Caribbean. It will add 10 or 20 percent to the demand for cruising.”
For Cuba, more cruise lines docking at the port of Havana means a temporary solution to the country’s lack of hotel inventory. The cruise lines help build Cuba’s tourism, while offering those travelers a place to stay without burdening Cuban hotels, said Mark Conroy, head of the Miami office for luxury line Silversea Cruises.
“Their biggest challenge right now is hotel capacity,” Conroy said, “we can address the problem they have in the short term while they build their long-term infrastructure.”
The allure of visiting Cuba and the ease of doing so via a cruise vacation will draw travelers to the island — and to cruising, said Richard Sasso, CEO and president of MSC Cruises (USA).
“This is going to be a very successful for all of us,” Sasso said. “It’s been in the icebox for 60 years and now the ice is melting.”