Carnival Corp. Gains Cuban Government Approval: Cruises Begin in May

Arnold Donald of Carnival Corporation

Just hours after U.S. President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s president Raul Castro on a historic visit to the Cuban island – the first by a sitting president in nearly nine decades -- Carnival Corporation said it had received approval from the Cuban government for cruising from the United States to Cuba.

So, on May 1, the company’s fathom brand will depart from Miami on its inaugural roundtrip voyage to Cuba, making the first time in five decades that a ship will sail from the United States to Cuba. The line has been taking reservations since last summer while awaiting the required approvals from the Cuban government.

That hurdle was eliminated yesterday when Carnival Corporation signed documents with Havanatur Celimar and various other Cuban agencies in Havana. Carnival also received permission to sail to the island nation with its other brands, but for a few months at least, it’s likely to let fathom be the barometer for how things work.

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“Today we’ve made history,” said Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corp., speaking on a conference call to reporters from Havana. “This is a historic opportunity, and we know there is pent-up demand among Americans who want to experience Cuba.”

Also participating on the call was Tara Russell, fathom’s president and CEO, who expressed her excitement: “We have been told that we will be the first cruise line to sail from the U.S. to Cuba with our historic inaugural sailing.”

Fathom’s 704-passenger Adonia, a former P&O Cruises premium vessel, will sail to Cuba every other week; it will be refurbished prior to starting the Cuba sailings.

Guests will enjoy cultural programs both on and off the ship -- everything from meet-and-greets with locals to Spanish lessons and from dancing to cultural/heritage focused programs. Guests can expect Cuban- and Caribbean-inspired music and films, along with Cuban-inspired menu options.

Sailing roundtrip every other week from PortMiami, the cruises will call at Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, three ports of call for which Carnival Corporation has obtained berthing approval.

The cruises will depart on Sundays at 4:30 p.m., and arrive at Havana on Monday around 11 a.m. Then the ship will return to Miami by 7:30 a.m. the following Sunday. Fares begin around $1,800 a person excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port charges.

To secure a spot on future sailings, a $600 per person deposit is required for all cabin categories and occupancy levels. Final payment is due 90 days prior to departure.

The cruises – because they provide cultural exchange programs – do meet the requirements of the U.S. government for travel by U.S. citizens to the island. Donald said the company worked carefully with Cuba and Havana Tours to develop the land program and finalize the agreement, a process he described as “rewarding.”

Russell said the Carnival team “had already fallen in love” with Cuba’s countryside, food and other attributes. She also said she’s spoken to major travel partners who were thrilled about the day’s developments.

Donald stressed Carnival Corporation would handle the visa process for guests who so choose, noting that otherwise, it could be somewhat complicated. The required affidavit is built into the booking process, with necessary paperwork then submitted by Carnival to Cuban authorities. "We do make it very easy for our passengers,” Russell said.

When asked about any financial risks the company as a whole would be taking in Cuba, Donald said he didn’t really see any major risk. “Financially, it’s one ship,” he stressed. “You’re not going to see us financially move the needle [with one ship]. We’ll have other ships coming in over time.”

He called Cuba a “positive economic driver” and pledged to work with Cuba to better develop the market and said that “over time, it could be a real economic benefit, and another ‘refresher’ for the Caribbean.” Donald cited eight or nine ports total that could be utilized by cruise ships, providing infrastructure is adequate.

When asked about Tampa or other Florida ports as possible additional home ports for Cuban departing cruises, Arnold said that while PortMiami would be the Adonia’s home port, the company would always be open minded in terms of where demand comes from within the U.S. as it evaluates future opportunities.

What’s the prime benefit of a cruise to Cuba? For those taking a flight, staying in a local hotel and heading out to explore, it can be pricey. Plus, there’s a lot of territory to cover. From Donald’s perspective: “You can’t see as much of the island in one week as you can if you’re on the ship.”

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