With approval from the Cuban government in hand, Carnival Corp. will become the first cruise company in more than 50 years to operate sailings between the U.S. and Cuba. It certainly won't be the last.
The world’s largest cruise operator is charging full steam ahead for Cuba.
Carnival Corp. announced Monday that Cuban authorities have agreed to allow its new Fathom brand to operate sailings between Miami and the island. The timing of the approval was close: The Miami-based cruise line has said for months that it planned to start voyages on the 704-passenger Adonia in May.
“It’s been an extraordinary day,” said Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald in a call with media Monday afternoon from Cuba, where he and Fathom president Tara Russell were meeting with officials. “There’s signifiant pent-up demand from American travelers who want to experience Cuba firsthand.”
Beyond Fathom, Donald said the cruise company is interested in deploying ships from some of its nine other brands to the island. Because cruise ships open booking far in advance, he said it wouldn’t make sense to change itineraries immediately.
“It’s probably going to be many months, more than likely, before one of the other brands begins to sail here, but there’s no question that we will begin to sail the other brands over time,” he said.
But he said authorities in Cuba were “definitely open” to other brands coming. Carnival’s other operating units include Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Seabourn, and several European lines.
“I doubt very seriously in the near future they would want five ships at once or three ships,” he said. “Over time, all of that will happen. In the short term, we’ll start working for some months out for our other brands.”
Donald said Carnival Corp. was the first cruise company in more than 50 years to receive approval from the Cuban government to sail from the United States to Cuba.
The operator announced its intention to add Cuba as a destination in July after receiving approval from the U.S. government to offer culture-rich people-to-people programs. Carnival announced its intended ports of call — Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba — in September.
Weeklong Cuba trips are scheduled every other week starting May 1. Fathom will sail to the Dominican Republic in between Cuba voyages for “social impact” cruises that focus on volunteer work.
For the Cuba trips, excursions include architecture tours, meetings with artists and musicians, discussions with local entrepreneurs, visits to coffee plantations and farming communities, and opportunities to try local rum and cigars.
While passengers will be able to choose from activities organized by the cruise line, they will be able to pick other options as long as they certify that their chosen activity is allowed by U.S. regulations. Donald said the cruise line would counsel passengers on what would be acceptable.
General lounge-on-the-beach tourism is still not allowed because of the U.S. trade embargo, but Fathom is pointing out that passengers can spend their travel time between cities “relaxing by the pool, not sitting on a bus.”
“We are thrilled to offer our customers this one-of-a-kind Cuban travel experience,” Russell said.
In recent months, officials with Fathom and the parent company have said they were “very, very confident” that Cuban approval was forthcoming. They also acknowledged that selling those trips for a price that starts at $1,800 per person would be easier once permission from all parties was granted.
Russell said the inaugural Cuba sailing was not yet sold out — at least as of late Monday afternoon.
“But we have very solid occupancy,” she said. “It will be sold quickly. Get your space while it lasts; there’s a little bit of room to go.”
Monday’s news comes amid a flurry of activity around Cuba, where President Barack Obama is in the middle of a three-day visit. In the past few days, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Marriott International have both said that they will start doing business in the country. Airbnb has been allowing Americans to book stays in private Cuban homes since last year, and said Sunday that the service would be open to travelers from around the world.
Other Cruise Lines
Cruise ships haven’t been able to sail between the U.S. and Cuba for more than five decades because of the embargo, which was first imposed in 1960. Ever since Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in December of 2014, operators have been working to figure out their best path to the island.
As more travel restrictions have been eased in the months that followed, U.S.-based cruise executives have spoken in more detail about their plans, though Carnival Corp. is the only company that started selling trips. Foreign cruise lines, including Switzerland-based MSC Cruises, have already been offering sailings, but none from American shores.
In a statement Monday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings spokeswoman Vanessa Picariello said the Miami-based company is engaged with the Cuban government to get the OK to offer cruises that comply with current U.S. rules.
“Our guests are extremely interested in visiting Cuba and there is tremendous pent-up demand for cruise itineraries featuring this jewel of the Caribbean,” the statement said. “It is our continued desire to have a ship from our fleet be one of the first to offer voyages to Cuba from the United States.”
Last week, cruise executives spoke at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference about the potential they believe Cuba holds for the industry.
Frank Del Rio, CEO of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, said he expects to see “a ship in Havana every day of the week” eventually.
“I’ve got the entire fleet just pouncing around the island, waiting,” he said, exaggerating only slightly. “It’s my hobby.”
Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA, marveled at the speed of recent change after decades of inaction.
“We’ve come light years in a year,” he said.
His company recently said it would add a second ship in Cuba starting in late 2016, but the trips have not been offered to Americans. That’s a group Sasso thinks will clamor for the opportunity to visit the island by ship.
“We’re all going to take advantage of it,” Sasso said. “It’s going to be all the cruise lines, no one’s going to be left behind.”
One benefit the cruise industry has is that accommodations are built into the vessels. While interest in visiting Cuba is high, hotel room inventory is not: Tour operators say rooms are scarce, and some companies are reserving space for groups into 2018.
“Cuba is a great opportunity for us in the cruise business because we bring our own hotels and our own infrastructure,” said Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises. “And it’s a great opportunity for the Caribbean as well.”
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Photo credit: A car drives along Havana's malecon. Brian Ledgard / Flickr