Historic Cuba cruise can sail with Cuban-born passengers, Carnival says

By Arlene Satchell

The first cruise from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years will sail as planned May 1 after Carnival Corp. reached an agreement with Cuba that allows Cuban-born people to make the trips.

“We are set to sail,” Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said Friday during a phone conference. “This is a positive outcome, and we are extremely pleased.”

Earlier this week, Carnival had said it would delay the historic sailing if Cuba didn’t agree to reverse a decades-old rule that banned Cuban-born individuals from traveling to or from the island by sea.

The world’s largest cruise company drew heat after it earlier denied reservations to Cuban-born travelers while it continued to negotiate with Cuba. After a public outcry, protests and a discrimination lawsuit, Carnival decided to accept those reservations and delay the voyages if necessary.

“From the beginning, this was a top priority for us,” Donald said.

He said Carnival knew about Cuba’s rule early on, after receiving Cuban approval for its cruises, and had been working with Cuba to get similar treatment as air charters, which do not prohibit Cuban-born travelers.

“We were nervous when the ‘noise’ started, frankly [fearing] it could disrupt the process, but we’re glad we were still able to get it done,” Donald said.

Carnival is the first cruise company approved to sail from the U.S. to Cuba since the two nations began to relax trade and travel restrictions in December 2014. The cruises from Miami will operate on Carnival’s newest brand, Fathom, which specializes in travel for social causes.

Prices for the May 1 trip start at $2,662 per person double occupancy for an interior cabin, excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port expenses, according to Fathom’s website.

All meals aboard the the 704-passenger Adonia as well as cultural experiences on board and several on-island activities are included in the fare. Cruise rates will vary by season.

The Adonia is smaller than many cruise ships and has no casino and no Broadway-style shows. Instead, the ship offers Spanish classes and other lessons in local culture and history.

In a statement Friday, Miami attorney Tucker Ronzetti, who represents two Cuban-American men who have sued Carnival and Fathom, said: “We look forward to the day when Cuban-born Americans are treated just like everyone else aboard one of those cruises and can enjoy complete equality of treatment without being subjected to special burdens from the government of Cuba. We hope Carnival will work with us to make this a reality.”

A U.S. District judge presiding over the lawsuit noted that even with the change, Cuban-born individuals appear to have more hurdles to clear to get visas to travel to the Communist-led island.

Reaction from the cruise industry was positive.

“We are happy to learn that Cuba will be welcoming all Americans — including those born in Cuba — to arrive by ship,” said Vicky Garcia, co-owner of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative in Coral Springs that has more than 1,000 home-based franchised travel agents.

“This shows how the voice of the cruise industry can positively impact humanity,” added Garcia, a Cuban-American born in Miami.

In a statement, trade group Cruise Lines International Association said it welcomed the Cuban government’s “positive and fair decision” to allow all American citizens equal opportunity to visit Cuba.

“The cruise industry understands the power that travel has to bring learning and understanding between nations and cultures. … CLIA fully supports the rights of all people to travel freely and have the opportunity to experience a wide range of destinations. Every step that nations take towards open access and free interchange between citizens is a step in the right direction.”

Cuba’s reversal of the ban not only extends to cruises but also to commercial vessels, Donald said.

He expects it to apply to other cruise brands within the company once they receive their own approval from Cuba to send cruises there.

Oceania Cruises continues discussions with Cuban officials seeking approval to begin cruises to Cuba later this year, said Frank Del Rio, president and CEO of Oceania’s parent company, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.

“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 and immigrated to the United States in 1961.

“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.”

Donald said interest in cruises from Cuban-born customers has been low compared with the total number of people considering going to the island.

“We hope now that will increase,” he said. “Now that the uncertainty is gone and for those who were hesitating, it’s now time to book.”

Fathom’s president, Tara Russell, said the Cuba cruises have been attracting “tremendous interest.”

“The phones are flying off the hook, and that’s a good thing,” said Russell, who joined the conference call Friday from the Dominican Republic, where the Adonia is docked on its first weeklong cruise from Miami. “We’re hoping to see a diverse mix sailing with us.”

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