Historic Carnival Cruise to Cuba Sails From Miami

By ,   May 2, 2016 ,   Cruise Industry

Escorted from Miami by fire boats spraying water, the Fathom cruise brand of Carnival Corporation made history as flagship Adonia sailed out of Miami on her way to Havana, Cuba. It is the first time a cruise ship makes such a journey in over 50 years.

"To us [being first to Cuba] is important," CEO of Carnival Corporation, Arnold Donald, told a group of reporters onboard mv Adonia. "We have a long legacy," Donald added, referring to the history of Costa in Cuba, which managed Havana cruise terminal before being purchased by Carnival Corporation. "For years, we've been prepared for things to change."

The inaugural sailing has been nearly a year in the making, having first received permission last summer from the U.S. Department of Treasury and the U.S. Department of Commerce to offer "people-to-people" itineraries that fulfil the humanitarian requirements that govern most tourist trips from the United States to Cuba. Cuba then granted its permission in March, clearing the way for the American cruise line to begin sailing to the communist island nation.

The line quickly ran into a roadblock, however, when it originally agreed to follow Cuban law banning Cuban-born people from traveling to the country via ship. A firestorm of protests descended on Fathom and parent company Carnival Corporation, with several Cuban-born American citizens filing a lawsuit accusing Carnival Corporation of violating their civil rights. Within days, Carnival opened Fathom's bookings to all interested passengers, saying that it would delay its inaugural Cuba voyage until the country changed its policy to match the requirements for chartered air people-to-people trips. Days later Cuba did just that, permitting all Cuban-born cruisers to visit the country via ship.

Donald said the company is "very proud to have played a role" in helping bring about a change to Cuban policy that has long prevented Cuban-born people from visiting their native land by ship.

Between 10 and 20 Cuban-born passengers are on the inaugural sailing, including several Carnival Corp employees. Arnie Perez, Carnival Corp's general counsel, who did much of the leg work to convince Cuba to change its policy, will be the first person to disembark Adonia when it arrives in Havana, making him the first Cuban-born person to arrive to the country via ship from the United States in more than 50 years.

Fathom's sailings are 7-night journeys visiting Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. In order to fulfill the people-to-people requirements, both the shoreside and onboard experiences are dominated by Cuba-immersive activities that include Cuban food and rum tastings, music concerts, history and art lectures and film screenings.

For instance, in Havana passengers can take an Old Havana walking tour with lunch included. During the tour, participants will meet with a local cafe owner to talk about the role of tourism in Old Havana, as well as local artists at Taller Grafico Experimental to learn about the country's oldest printmaking techniques. In Santaigo de Cuba, tour goers will visit several community projects where local residents are working to create change through arts, food and culture.

Free people-to-people tours are included in each city (two in Havana), as well as a small selection of extra-fee options in Havana, including a visit to the Tropicana or the Cabaret Parisien in a classic American car.

Fathom will not be the only American cruise line to sail Cuba cruises for long. Pearl Seas Cruises began selling Cuba itineraries last year but has had to cancel the first few as approval from Cuba has not yet come; the line says it is expecting to receive approval soon to begin sailing in October. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings is also actively seeking approval from Cuba to sail its Oceania brand to the island. And Carnival Corp, itself, is looking to extend its approval to other brands in its portfolio.

"We've already submitted a number of requests for ports of calls for several of our ships," Donald said, adding he's "confident" that Cuba will pace its permits. "It'll probably be later this year or early next year before you see another of our lines or another line coming to Cuba.

French cruise line Ponant, which received permission recently to accept U.S. citizens on its newly scheduled sailings from Miami to Cuba, will be among the first of these additional lines; those voyages are slated to begin January 2017.

Fathom cruises alternating weekly itineraries to Cuba and Dominican Republic.