The U.S. has authorized the first cruise service to Cuba in half a century.
Cruise giant Carnival Corp. announced Tuesday that it has received U.S. government licenses to offer "purposeful" cruises from the U.S. to Cuba for people-to-people, humanitarian and other exchanges.
Pending approval from Cuban authorities, Carnival aims to offer seven-day trips from Miami to several Cuban ports starting in May on its new "fathom" brand, which offers travel for social causes such as volunteer work and cultural immersion.
MV Adonia exterior
The Cuba trips would use the 710-passenger MV Adonia, a deluxe ship that offers no casino or Broadway-type shows but rather features Spanish classes and workshops on island arts and heritage. The relatively small ship could enter even smaller and shallower ports across Cuba.
"We think there's enormous demand from the U.S. side for this experience," said fathom President Tara Russell, citing a "hunger" to see a nation off-limits for most Americans since the 1960s.
The cruise approval is part of President Barack Obama's push announced Dec. 17 to thaw Washington's Cold War hostilities against Cuba. The two countries have since agreed to re-open embassies in their capitals this month, and U.S. authorities have given the first approval in five decades for ferries, yacht charters and other transport links between the U.S. and the island just 90 miles south of Florida.
Americans still can't travel for leisure tourism to Cuba under terms of the U.S. embargo against communist-led Cuba, a measure that must be lifted by Congress.
But new rules permit U.S. visits to Cuba without a prior license in 12 categories of travel, including the people-to-people type tours now planned by Carnival's fathom brand.
Cruise industry analyst Stewart Chiron, who leads Miami-based website CruiseGuy.com, predicts success for fathom's Cuba venture.
"Demand will be very, very strong because it's the only ship of an American-focused brand that can visit Cuba," said Chiron. Americans this year could take a people-to-people cruise through a Canadian company, but its 1,200-passenger ship left from Jamaica or Cuba, not from a U.S. port, he said.
Cuba has started to develop its cruise business in the past few years as part of a fast-growing tourism industry that attracts mainly Canadians, Europeans and Latin Americans. Cuba hosted more than 3 million visitors last year, making it the Caribbean's second-largest destination after the Dominican Republic. The U.S. is the only country that maintains an embargo and travel ban against the island.
Just last week, Swiss-based MSC Cruises announced it would base its 2,120-passenger MSC Opera in Havana starting Dec. 22 to cater to non-U.S. customers during the winter cruise season. The ship will not accept U.S dollars and will visit Jamaica, Cayman Islands and Mexico on its seven-day voyages
Severall other non-U.S. cruise companies, including Fred.Olsen, Thomson and Noble Caledonia, also have been offering port calls in Cuba, as the administration of Raul Castro opens the island economy.
The number of cruise passengers in Cuba — though still tiny — more than tripled in January to nearly 4,000 compared with the same month last year, according to Cuban government data.
The experience of those cruises gives Miami-based Carnival confidence that Cuba has the port facilities, buses and other infrastructure needed to host fathom's Adonia ship and its guests, Russell said.
Still, with Cuban approvals pending, many details for the Cuba trips have yet to be worked out, from ports of call to activities on the island, she said. fathom is getting help on activities from nonprofit IDDI of Dominican Republic, long active in Cuba and dedicated to alleviating poverty in the Caribbean.
The new brand is accepting reservations and refundable deposits for its proposed seven-day Cuba trips, which it hopes to alternate with weekly cruises to the Dominican Republic on the same ship.
Prices for fathom's Cuba trips start at $2,990 including all meals and some activities on board and some activities on the island but not including taxes, port fees and the cost of Cuban visas, Russell said.
That's more costly than fathom trips to Dominican Republic, partly because of U.S. paperwork on Cuba.
Chiron sees plenty of Americans willing to pay a premium for the Cuba experience while sharing fathom's unique concept of cruising with like-minded travelers to help out others.
"It's a very exclusive, limited opportunity — 700 berths per week from the U.S. to Cuba," Chiron said. "They'll be full."
Of course, U.S. cruise lines are looking forward to a time when U.S. leisure tourism to Cuba is allowed and Americans can travel to the island freely.
The American Society of Travel Agents estimates that about 2 million more Americans would travel to Cuba by 2017, should the U.S. authorize open U.S. travel to the island this year. And roughly one-fourth of those would take a cruise to the island — more than half a million travelers, the group said.