Cruise lines still awaiting OK from Cuba to begin trips with U.S. departures

The Celestyal Crystal cruise ship departs Havana as the sun sets on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. This winter season, it is offering people-to-people itineraries that allow American to legally cruise Cuban waters.
The Celestyal Crystal cruise ship departs Havana as the sun sets on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. This winter season, it is offering people-to-people itineraries that allow American to legally cruise Cuban waters. AP

At least three U.S.-headquartered cruise lines have Cuba in their sights and have been advertising itineraries that leave from PortMiami this winter and spring.

But with the clock ticking, none of them has received a green light from Cuban authorities to visit Cuban ports, and two of them don’t have berthing space at PortMiami.

Still, Carnival Corp. is optimistic that its “social-impact” brand, Fathom, will get approval for seven-day cultural immersion trips to Cuba in time for its planned maiden voyage in May. “We’re selling, planning and we’re just waiting for Cuba’s final approval,” said Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival Corp. “We’re very optimistic.”

The Fathom cruise will comply with U.S. rules that allow American travelers to visit Cuba on itineraries that emphasize people-to-people exchanges with visits to schools, an organic farm, private restaurants and cultural centers where they can interact with the Cuban people. Prices start at $2,710 and climb to $8,250 per person for a suite during peak season.

With a partial U.S. travel ban to Cuba still in effect, people-to-people tours are one of the 12 categories of travel authorized for Americans by the U.S. government.

In meetings with Cuban authorities, Frizzell said, “there were no indications there were any negatives; everything seems very positive.”

The plan is to alternate weeks between people-to-people itineraries to Cuba and volunteer-focused trips to the Puerto Plata area of the Dominican Republic.

Fathom has already secured berthing space at PortMiami, and whether it chooses to runs its itineraries to Cuba or the Dominican Republic or both is up to the cruise line, said port officials.

But two other cruise lines that have announced Cuba itineraries leaving from PortMiami — one with a departure as early as Feb. 11 — still haven’t secured berth space for their rapidly approaching departures, according to port officials.

Haimark Line, which usually deploys its MS Saint Laurent on trips through the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and along the Atlantic Coast, has been advertising 10-day people-to-people tours that begin in Miami and end in Miami. The cruises, which are scheduled to begin Feb. 11 and run through April, include visits to six of Cuba’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Connecticut-based Pearl Sea Cruises, which usually plies the waters of the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Panama Canal with its luxury small ship, the 210-passenger Pearl Mist, also has been advertising a 10-night trip that departs from and ends in Miami with stops in Havana, María La Gorda, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, Alejandro de Humboldt National Park and Holguín. The first departure from Miami is listed as March 6.

Although Haimark Lin, which filed for bankruptcy reorganization in October, and Pearl Sea Cruises have been in touch with PortMiami officials, neither has been issued a berth. “We haven’t received any recent berthing requests from them,” said Andria Muniz-Amador, a spokesperson for the port. And getting a berth, she added, “doesn’t just happen overnight.”

Neither Haimark nor Pearl Sea Cruises responded to emails and phone calls from the Miami Herald. But Pearl Sea does include a caveat on its website: “These cultural voyages are subject to final government approvals.”

Before a rule change in September, cruise lines and ferry services that wanted to call in Cuba had to seek special licenses from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. Now no U.S. license is required — although the U.S. Coast Guard must give approval for potential Cuban ports of entry and approve vessel security plans.

The new wrinkle in cruising this year is the possibility of Cuba-bound cruises departing from Miami. But cruise ships owned by companies that aren’t headquartered in the United States have been calling in Cuba for years.

Switzerland-based MSC Cruises, for example, switched its MSC Opera, which originally was going to cruise the Canary Islands, Madeira and Morocco this winter, to an eight-day, seven-night Caribbean itinerary and home-ported the ship in Havana.

Every Tuesday the ship towers over Havana’s cruise terminal near the old part of the city and is in port for nearly three days to allow cruisers sufficient time to tour Havana before leaving on an itinerary that also includes Montego Bay, Jamaica; George Town, Cayman Islands; and Cozumel, Mexico.

But American travelers can’t just hop a flight to Havana, board the Opera and take a Caribbean vacation. U.S. travelers must either fall within the12 categories authorized by the U.S. government — a difficult threshold on a vacation-oriented cruise — or apply for a special license to travel from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

This season Celestyal Cruises also is offering cruises aboard the Celestyal Crystal that circumnavigate Cuba with boarding in either Montego Bay or Havana and stops in Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and María la Gorda, a renowned diving center in western Cuba. Because it has partnered with people-to-people operators and offers programs that may include, for example, conversations with farmers, entrepreneurs and cultural figures, Americans booking the people-to-people programs shouldn’t run afoul of U.S. regulatory concerns.

Road Scholar, a Boston tour operator, for example, is offering a 14-day people-to-people land and sea tour that includes five nights aboard the Celestyal Crystal. Prices start at $5,098 and some dates in February and March have already sold out. Road Scholar also is offering an eight-day option using the Celestyal Crystal that departs from Montego Bay.

At a more economical price point, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development offers seven-day people-to-people tours on board and on shore using the Celestyal ship, starting at around $1,700. Sailings are scheduled through April 8, and passengers can board every Friday in Montego Bay and every Monday in Havana.

Another sea option for American travelers this season is a motor sail excursion.

Working with New York-based specialty tour operator Group IST and Variety Cruises, people-to-people operator InsightCuba is offering eight-day sail cruiser trips with air departures from Miami International Airport. The sailing trips begin in either Havana or Cienfuegos, and there are stops in María la Gorda where travelers will visit the Guanahacabibes National Park and meet with naturalists, Cayo Largo, Trinidad and Cienfuegos.

Two 40-passenger luxury sail cruisers, the Panorama and Panorama II, are used for the people-to-people trips and prices range from $4,899 to $5,999. With the smaller ships, “we can offer more intimate service and it’s a romantic way to see a place,” said Tom Popper, president of InsightCuba, which is based in New Rochelle, New York.

December and January trips sold out, and February is almost sold out, said Popper. The trips have proved so popular, he said, that InsightCuba is thinking about extending the sailings beyond the end of the season in April.

“It’s been one of our most successful launches ever. It’s really like a floating boutique hotel that goes to places that even many Cubans haven’t seen,” said Popper. “We’ve taken the formula that has worked on our other people-to-people tours and just created a different way to be transported.”

The number of Americans who want to visit Cuba just keeps growing, he said. “Last week, we had our biggest booking week in the history of the company,” Popper said.