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More than a year after Carnival Corporation first sent a cruise ship to Cuba, the operator will finally sail its namesake line to the island.
Carnival Cruise Line announced Tuesday that it got the green light from Cuban authorities to sail to Havana and stay docked overnight on a dozen voyages between June and October of this year.
The cruise giant hopes those dozen sailings are just the beginning.
“We’re very much in this for the long haul,” said Terry Thornton, the line’s senior vice president of port operations. “Obviously we don’t think 12 cruises is the end game here….We have a much longer-term vision of this.”
Carnival Corp.’s newest brand, Fathom, was the first modern U.S. operator to visit Cuba in the spring of 2016. It will sail its last trip to the island in May before the 704-passenger ship returns to its former line in the UK and Fathom transitions to branded experiences instead of a cruise line.
Tuesday’s news about Carnival comes after rivals Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International both announced expanded Cuba plans through late 2017, including overnight stays in Havana, earlier this month. Both originally received permission in December to sail to the island along with some higher-end brands.
Thornton said the company believes there is plenty of interest to go around.
“These 12 cruises are going to be extremely popular,” he said. “We have no concerns about the demand for it.”
He said Carnival hopes the sailings will also attract travelers who haven’t taken cruises before.
“We’ve been interested as a company for a very long time in trying to attract more first-time cruisers,” he said. “We’re hoping that having Havana and Cuba in our mix will keep encouraging people to give cruise a try for the first time.”
Carnival Paradise, a 2,052-passenger vessel, will visit the island from Tampa on four- and five-day trips. The shorter cruises will spend a day and night in Havana and visit no other destinations, while the five-day trips will also stop in Cozumel or Key West.
The vessel had originally been scheduled for four-day sailings that visited Cozumel and five-day itineraries that went to Cozumel and Grand Cayman.
Carnival’s cruises to Cuba will be different than Fathom’s, which had a personal enrichment focus and fewer traditional onboard experiences. There was no casino, for example, and entertainment was limited.
Carnival Paradise, on the other hand, has four pools, a water slide, activities for kids, comedy and stage shows, and other entertainment.
Still, Thornton said Fathom’s experiences in Cuba will help Carnival prepare guests for the experience, which requires more red tape than most Caribbean cruises. Because of the embargo against Cuba, visitors from the U.S. cannot simply go to the beach as tourists; they must participate in sanctioned forms of travel. Most cruise passengers visit for cultural purposes.
“Because of the learnings from Fathom, we are really in a better position to make that as easy for our guests as possible from a shore excursion standpoint,” Thornton said. “We know what worked wth Fathom, what didn’t work, we know the process that has to go into place, all the document requirements.”
Like other major cruise lines that have announced Cuba itineraries in recent months, Carnival is staying in Havana rather than venturing to other cities in the country. Fathom has been the exception, visiting ports in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
“Right now we believe that most consumers today have an interest in visiting Cuba for the first time to see Havana,” Thornton said. “There will be a lot of time and appetite for guests to see Cuba; we think, over time, that will develop.”