HAVANA, July 7 With an eye toward one day having a variety of travel packages to the once-forbidden island, Carnival Corporation announced on Tuesday that it would begin offering people-to-people-exchange cruises to Cuba beginning next year.
Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company, has secured approval from the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Commerce departments to offer the trips to Cuba, and now is working to obtain approval from the Cuban government.
It is the latest major U.S. company to join the parade of American businesses developing plans to establish ties with Cuba after the announcement last December by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro that the two nations were re-establishing diplomatic ties after almost 60 years.
The Obama administration eased trade and travel restrictions to Cuba, but only people who qualify under one of 12 categories can go there. Many tourism companies offer trips through so-called people-to-people exchanges.
That is Carnival’s plan. Its cruises to Cuba would fall under “fathom travel itineraries directly to Cuba for the purpose of providing cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens,” said a Carnival announcement.
In a teleconference call with reporters Tuesday, Carnival Corp. executives said that there is pent-up interest in the United States in traveling to Cuba.
“We look forward to working with the Cuban authorities for their approval to help make the social, cultural and humanitarian exchanges between U.S. citizens and the people of Cuba a reality,” said Arnold Donald, President and CEO of Carnival Corporation. “We know there is strong demand from travelers who want to immerse themselves in Cuban culture, so this is a historic opportunity for us to enable more people to experience Cuban society.”
Cuba travel experts say cruise ships would be a way to enjoy the island and circumvent the expected shortage of tourist accommodations in the near future.
Carnival is accepting reservations beginning Tuesday, anticipating a great demand.
They say reservations can be made through a travel agent, or online through fathomtravel.org or by calling 1-855-9fathom.
Many of Cuba’s four- and five-star hotels are booked through the summer of 2016, an unprecedented demand that tourism executives expect only will grow as more tourists travel to Cuba from the United States.
“We have hundreds of tour group requests just at Marazul,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, a U.S.-based travel agency founded in 1979 when Washington briefly loosened travel restrictions to Cuba. “There was a 38 percent increase in U.S. visitors to Cuba already in the first months of this year, and about a 15 percent increase overall in visitors from around the world in the same period of time.”
“Most people are trying to get into Cuba before American tourism comes in completely and before Cuba changes.”
Carnival says it would become the first American cruise company to visit Cuba since the 1960 trade embargo. The trips will be through its new brand, fathom, which focuses on trips where passengers sail to a destination in order to volunteer there.
The weeklong cruises will be aboard the Adonia, which carries 710 passengers. The ship is relatively small for the industry; ships sailing under the company’s namesake line carry nearly 3,000 passengers.
Carnival is expecting high demand for the voyages and has priced them accordingly. Prices start at $2,990 per person plus taxes and port fees. A similar service-oriented trip on the same ship to the Dominican Republic starts at $1,540 per person.
Carnival representatives on the press call said the costs for going to Cuba are much higher than other, rather similar destinations because of the greater interest by American travelers.
Air travel to Cuba also is pricey.
“We’re still dealing with airfares that I think are too expensive,” said Guild, who spent a few days recently in Cuba to speak with the island’s tourism executives. “It’s because they’re charter flights, the airlines are still unable to have regular scheduled flights. When we have direct service and work on arrangements with Cuba to do that, then it will bring down the cost of airfare.”
The itinerary is still being finalized as Carnival waits for approval from the Cuban government. The ship is expected to visit several ports and passengers will sleep onboard each night.
“We’re incredibly excited and humbled by this potential opportunity to help travelers experience the amazing beauty and culture of Cuba, while being able to provide educational and cultural exchange activities that will benefit both the traveler and the Cuban people,” said Tara Russell, president of fathom and global impact lead for Carnival Corporation. “We are looking forward to building what we intend to be a beautiful and lasting friendship with the Cuban people.”
Carnival’s license comes as part of recent approvals for six passenger vessels from the Treasury Department. The government would not name the companies who received these licenses or what their specific line of business is. They could be ferries, yacht charters or cruises. Of those six, four of them are authorized to allow passengers and crew to spend the night aboard, even when docked in a Cuban port. Other major cruise lines did not immediately respond to inquiries about their efforts to sail to Cuba.
The vessels are not allowed to stop at other countries, so don’t expect Cuba to become one of four or five stops on a typical Caribbean cruise anytime soon.
Carnival isn’t the first cruise company to sail to Cuba. A handful of foreign cruises do come to the island. In 2013, Canadian company Cuba Cruise, in partnership with Greece’s Celestyal Cruises, launched cruises from Jamaica to Cuba, making six ports of call including Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Trips start at about $850.
Tourism, a $2.6 billion-plus industry, is one of the main engines that has kept Cuba’s economy sputtering along. Last year, the country welcomed a record 3 million visitors.
About 600,000 U.S. travelers are estimated to visit Cuba each year. Cuban officials estimate that 1.5 million Americans would travel to the island annually if all restrictions were removed, supplanting Canada as the No. 1 source of tourism and potentially adding some $2 billion a year to state coffers.
There are many challenges ahead for the country as it opens up to U.S. visitors. There isn’t yet enough infrastructure to handle the demand. But major travel companies including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, United Airlines, Hilton Worldwide and Marriott International have been closely eyeing developments there. JetBlue, which has run charter flights from Florida to Cuba for years, just launched a new nonstop flight from New York. It is only open to travelers who are approved to visit Cuba. American Airlines and Sun Country Airlines also offer charters.