It’s official: Cruise giant Carnival Corp. (CCL) will launch its first voyages from the USA to Cuba in May.
The parent company of Carnival, Princess and eight other cruise brands on Monday said the Cuban government had approved its previously announced plans to begin sailings to the island nation out of Miami.
The cruises, which already are on sale, will be operated bi-weekly by the company’s new social impact-focused Fathom brand, which will debut in April with volunteer vacations to the Dominican Republic. The trips will take place on Fathom’s 704-passenger Adonia, a former P&O Cruises vessel.
The announcement came during President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba. Obama has normalized relations with the Communist country and is loosening restrictions for U.S. travelers to Cuba that are tied to the decades-long U.S. trade embargo. While the embargo still exists, the Fathom cruises to Cuba now fall under an exception to the embargo for “people-to-people” travel.
Carnival first announced plans for Cuba cruises in July, when it received U.S. government approval for the trips, but noted at the time that they would be contingent on approval by the Cuban government. That approval came late Monday in the form of signed agreements between Carnival and Cuban authorities from Havanatur Celimar and various other agencies that enable the voyages, the company said.
“Today we’ve made history,” Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald told reporters in a call late Monday from Havana, soon after emerging from the signing. Calling it “an extraordinary day,” Donald noted that Carnival was the first U.S. cruise company in more than 50 years to be granted approval to sail from the U.S. to Cuba.
Two small cruise companies, Pearl Seas Cruises and the now-bankrupt Haimark Line, have been vying with Carnival to become the first to offer USA-to-Cuba cruises. Haimark initially announced, and then canceled, a February sailing from Miami to Cuba that would have been the first from the USA if it had occurred. The company cited its bankruptcy in canceling the trip. Pearl Seas announced USA-to-Cuba sailings for March that also were subsequently canceled, with the line citing a lack of permission from the Cuban government.
Pearl Seas still lists April cruises to Cuba on its website. Still, Carnival’s announcement suggests that no other line will receive approval to sail to Cuba before Fathom’s first trip there kicks off on May 1. In a press release about the approval, Carnival said it had been told the May 1 voyage will mark the first time a cruise ship has sailed from the USA to Cuba in more than 50 years.
Joining Carnival’s Donald on Monday’s call with reporters, Fathom president Tara Russell said there’s still space available on Fathom’s first Cuba sailing, which is just 40 days away.
In a report issued Monday, industry watcher Cruise Week said travel agents have been nervous about selling Fathom’s Cuba cruises due to the lack of approval by the Cuban government. Monday’s approval could be a boon for bookings, the travel agent-focused trade publication suggested.
Two other cruise giants, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, also could receive Cuban government approval for new Cuba sailings within days, an analyst for Nomura said Monday in a report issued before Carnival’s announcement. But even if the approvals come through, neither company is expected to start Cuba voyages before Carnival’s first sailing in May.
Donald suggested the Cuban government approval that Carnival Corp. received Monday would allow for other Carnival brands besides Fathom to sail from the USA to Cuba. But that doesn’t mean more Carnival brands will begin cruising there immediately. Donald said obstacles to a quick deployment of more ship include the limited number of berths at Cuban ports and limited infrastructure. Plus the other Carnival brands already have itineraries set for the coming year, with customers booked on the sailings.
“Suddenly changing itineraries doesn’t automatically make sense,” Donald said. “It’s probably going to be many months (before) one of the other brands begins to sail here. But there will be other brands over time.”
The new Fathom sailings to Cuba will be seven-night trips and initially feature calls at three ports for which Carnival Corp. has obtained berthing approval: Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
Fathom will depart from Miami on Sundays at 4:30 p.m. ET and arrive in Havana the next morning at 11 a.m. ET. Fares start at $1,800 per person, excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port expenses. Fares include all meals on the ship, on-board experiences and several on-the ground activities.
Gene Sloan, USA Today
March 22, 2016