Tourism & Cruises

Carnival opens bookings for Cuban-born guests pending a change in Cuba policy

View of the Fathom Adonia Cruise ship from Carnival Cruise Line at Port of Miami on Wednesday, April 12, 2016.
View of the Fathom Adonia Cruise ship from Carnival Cruise Line at Port of Miami on Wednesday, April 12, 2016. File photo

Cuban-born travelers can now book a cruise on Carnival Corp.’s Cuba sailings, the cruise giant announced Monday.

Carnival Corp. said it remains “optimistic” that the Cuban government will alter its policy prohibiting people born in Cuba from traveling there by sea. If no change comes before Carnival Corp.’s inaugural May 1 sailing, the cruise company will delay its voyages until all passengers can travel, Carnival Corp. said in a release.

A small group of protesters including Ramón Saúl Sánchez, president of the Democracy Movement, demonstrate outside the Carnival Corp. in protest of the ban by the Cuban government of Cubans and Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba by sea.

The announcement follows a turbulent week for the world’s largest cruise company, in which protesters, politicians and even Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out against Carnival Corp.’s acceptance of the discriminatory Cuban regulation.

We want everyone to be able to go to Cuba with us.

Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corp.

Throughout the controversy surroundings its trip, Doral-based Carnival Corp. has maintained that it has been in frequent discussions with the Cuban government about a possible change to the regulation. A shift would put cruise companies on a level playing field with air charters that now take Cuban-born people to the island on a daily basis.

"We want everyone to be able to go to Cuba with us," said Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., in a release. “We remain excited about this historic opportunity to give our guests an extraordinary vacation experience in Cuba."

The cruise company’s social impact line, Fathom, is scheduled to sail next month from PortMiami on weeklong voyages to Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Carnival Corp. gained approval from the Cuban government on March 21 to be the first American cruise company to sail to the island in more than 50 years.

Fathom has updated its reservation system to allow Cuban-born guests to book a cruise on its 704-passenger Adonia, the company announced Monday. Tickets start at $1,800 per person, excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port expenses. If the voyage is postponed, guests will get a full refund on cruise expenses as well as other travel expenses, including hotel accommodations and air travel.

In a letter to employees Monday, Donald said ensuring Cuban-born individuals can travel to Cuba has been a “top priority” for the cruise company.

“We have an obligation to all our employees, and to the communities in which they work and live, to be the best corporate citizen we can be. We believe this approach best supports that objective,” Donald said in the letter. “Again, we remain confident that we will reach a positive outcome and we continue to work full speed ahead in preparing for our every-other-week sailings from PortMiami to Cuba.” (On alternate weeks, the ship sails from Miami to the Dominican Republic.)

[Carnival Corp.] has been working on this for a long time, trying to make it work for everybody, even before they began to be criticized.

Ralph Santisteban, a CruiseOne franchise owner based in Kendall

Travel agent Ralph Santisteban, a CruiseOne franchise owner based in Kendall, said interest for Fathom has been largely from other parts of the country and has remained that way throughout the controversy.

“However, now with the change we may see the needle move,” Santiesteban said. He expects to get more Cuba inquiries from local travelers in the coming weeks.

Santiesteban also applauded Carnival Corp.’s longtime efforts for a policy change with Cuba.

“Kudos to Carnival for being proactive,” he said. “They’ve been working on this for a long time, trying to make it work for everybody, even before they began to be criticized.”

Voices of opposition

The backlash began last week following an April 7 column by Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago, who said Carnival Corp. was discriminating against Cuban-born Americans by following the policy imposed by the Cuban government.

Two lawsuits were filed in federal court in Miami last week, a class action suit and a civil suit, by Cuban-born Americans who attempted to book and were denied tickets on Fathom. The lawsuits alleged that the cruise line was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by following a policy that discriminates against a class of Americans on a place of public accommodation for transient guests — a cruise ship.

Plaintiffs in both lawsuits are still asking the court to put a hold on Carnival’s cruise plans until the lawsuits are decided.

“Words are easy, minds can change, and Carnival has not yet agreed to a consent order mandating the end of its prior practice of discrimination,” said Tucker Ronzetti, an attorney with Kozyak, Tropin & Throckmorton representing the class action lawsuit.

In a letter to Carnival Chairman and Miami Heat owner Micky Arison on Friday, Coral Gables attorney Angel Castillo Jr., who filed the civil lawsuit, posed the question that has resurfaced at nearly every stage of the debate: that discriminating against Cuban-born individuals is the same as discriminating against any other group.

“I wonder what your response would have been if Castro had told you that your cruise ships could not bring Jews, African-Americans, disabled persons, or pregnant woman to Cuba?” Castillo wrote.

Words are easy, minds can change, and Carnival has not yet agreed to a consent order mandating the end of its prior practice of discrimination.

Tucker Ronzetti, an attorney representing the class action lawsuit against Carnival Corp.

Orlando travel agent John Layton, who is a member of the LGBT community, said Carnival Corp.’s decision was particularly hurtful to him as a member of a community that is often marginalized. Layton attempted to book a cruise with his Cuba-born partner, Alberto Vigo, and Vigo’s parents, who were also born on the island. It would have been the first trip to Cuba in more than 50 years for Vigo’s 87-year-old father — but the family was denied.

“I have faced discrimination in other parts of my life, but this was just a double impact,” said Layton, who is a franchise owner for CruisePlanners, an American Express Travel Representative. “I knew how they were feeling and just in my heart, I knew it was wrong.”

After being rejected, Layton and his family booked a five-day trip to Havana via air instead. Following Carnival’s announcement, Layton said they will still book a voyage on Fathom in the future, because it offers an opportunity to see more of the island in one trip.

“It speaks volumes that a company like Carnival Corporation is willing to take a stand for all Americans,” Layton said.

It speaks volumes that a company like Carnival Corporation is willing to take a stand for all Americans.

John Layton, franchise owner for CruisePlanners, an American Express Travel Representative

But last week, many local politicians were wary of Carnival Corp.’s desire to stand for Cuban-born Americans.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez called on Carnival Corp. to cancel its plans, citing the county’s human rights ordinance. Gimenez raised the possibility of a legal fight between the cruise company and Miami-Dade, which owns PortMiami, where the cruise ship will depart.

The Coral Gables City Commission passed a resolution also advising the county to block Carnival from using the port.

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez and school-board member Raquel Regalado endorsed Gimenez’s inquiry, but Regalado urged the mayor to do more to pressure the cruise giant.

Also in opposition: four Senate candidates (Republicans Carlos Beruff of Sarasota, Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando), Miami’s three Republicans in the U.S. House (Reps. Carlos Curbelo, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), and Curbelo’s two Democratic rivals (former Rep. Joe Garcia and Annette Taddeo).

On Thursday, the outcry reached the ears of Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke out on the issue while in Miami, urging the Cuban government change its regulation.

“The United States government will never support, never condone discrimination. And the Cuban government should not have the right to enforce on us a policy of discrimination against people who have the right to travel,” Kerry said during an interview with the Miami Herald and CNN en Español in Miami.

Even former U.S. Attorney Bob Martinez jumped in, asking the Justice Department last week to investigate whether Carnival's trip would violate civil-rights protections, after Martinez was also denied passage on the cruise because of his nationality.

He offered a curt response to Carnival’s change of course Monday: "Smart."

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Patricia Mazzei and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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