This decision was down to the wire, but Carnival won in the end.
After days of will-they or won’t-they, Carnival Corp. announced Friday morning that the cruise line will sail to Cuba on May 1 as planned — with Cuban-born passengers, which wasn’t always guaranteed.
The Miami-based cruise operator acknowledged earlier this month that its Fathom brand was not allowing Cuban-born passengers to book cruises to the island in order to comply with a law in Cuba that forbids people born in the country from returning by sea.
Carnival said it was working with the Cuban government to allow Cuban natives to visit by cruise — as they are allowed to come and go by plane — but its initial decision to sail even without that permission faced intense public outcry, lawsuits, pressure from the Cuban exile community, and chiding from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
On Monday, the cruise line opened booking to anyone who was interested and said it would delay its planned weeklong voyages on the 704-passengers Adonia if it didn’t get approval to bring all guests. In a statement Friday, the company said it had “worked closely with Cuba to allow its cruise ships to operate in a similar manner as current air charter operations.”
The world’s largest cruise company, appears to have settled the issue for other operators as well. The statement said cruise ships and other commercial vessels were also now approved to carry passengers who were born in Cuba. Those passengers, though, will have to apply for permission to travel to Cuba from the embassy in New York, as they would if they were planning to arrive by air.
“We made history in March, and we are a part of making history again today,” Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., said in the statement. “More importantly, we are contributing to a positive future. This is a positive outcome and we are extremely pleased.”
The cruise line announced its intentions last year to visit Cuba on the new Fathom line, but only received permission from Cuban officials in March.
On a conference call Friday morning, Donald said that Carnival was aware of the restriction from the start but pushed forward with the expectation the rules would change by the time of departure. “From the very beginning we realized that there was a decades-old practice that affected travel by sea. We brought it up early in the conversation and were positive there would be this outcome. After the noise that was generated a few weeks ago, we worried it would upset the process and delay things.”
The cruise line will visit Cuba every other week, visiting Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba. Adonia will depart from Miami on Sundays. In between Cuba visits, it will sail to the Dominican Republic for “social impact” cruises full of volunteer activities.
Itineraries in Cuba will be more focused on cultural outings, including meetings with artists, architecture tours, rum tastings, and visits to coffee plantations.
“We have already seen tremendous interest in the incredible Cuba journey we have put together, and we are ecstatic that this historic opportunity is open to everyone who wants to travel to Cuba,” Tara Russell, president of Fathom, said in the statement.
Other cruise companies have said they were working with the Cuban government to get permission to sail to the island as well. On Friday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings president and CEO Frank Del Rio released a statement supporting the decision to allow Cuban-born Americans to visit by sea.
“I am extremely pleased with the announcement that all Americans, regardless of their place of birth, will be able to travel to Cuba aboard cruise ships,” said Del Rio, who was born in Cuba.
He said Oceania Cruises is trying to start cruising to Cuba later this year and the parent company is in talks about the Norwegian Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas brands visiting as well.
“I am very much looking forward to sailing to Cuba soon aboard one of our ships in the company of many fellow Cuban Americans and other fellow Americans who wish to share in the excitement and passion that cruising to Cuba brings,” Del Rio said.
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Photo credit: The Adonia is sailing for Fathom, Carnival Corp.'s newest brand. Carnival Corp.