As Cuba relations thaw, Carnival, MSC plan new itineraries

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The Adonia, currently in service for P&O Cruises, will sail social-impact cruises for Fathom.
The Adonia, currently in service for P&O Cruises, will sail social-impact cruises for Fathom.

Talk about cruising to Cuba is beginning to yield to action, with announcements last week by two cruise companies of sailings to the island starting as early as December.

The thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba, initiated last December by the Obama administration, immediately revived dreams of serving Cuba, which has been off limits to U.S. citizens for decades.

Now the dreams are starting to materialize.

Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise company, has received approval from the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Department to bring U.S. citizens to Cuba under its Fathom social-impact brand.

Weeklong cruises from Miami would begin in May 2016, pending approval from the Cuban government.

Meanwhile, MSC Cruises, another global cruise giant, announced plans to deploy its newly overhauled MSC Opera in Cuba for the winter. The 2,120-passenger ship will become the largest ever to be homeported there.

For the moment, the MSC cruises will not be actively marketed in the U.S., but MSC said packages will be offered for sale in Canada, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Brazil.

Fathom, a brand begun by Carnival this year, has been open for bookings for only five weeks.  On the day service to Cuba was announced, the phones lit up with inquiries.  

"The announcement generated our highest call volume and bookings to date," said Roger Frizzell, Carnival's vice president of public relations. "We believe our travel agent partners are going to be a key to success for this offering, and we are extremely excited about the potential of our Fathom brand."

Agents selling the Fathom cruises will have several obstacles to overcome, however. The price of $2,990 is three to four times that of a comparable seven-day itinerary elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Port charges and government fees, which have yet to be determined, will be additional.

Also, passenger activity is subject to the Treasury rules for American travel to Cuba, including a requirement that eight hours a day be spent onshore in people-to-people engagement.

The rules are part of an embargo of U.S. trade with Cuba that has been in place since 1960.

Yanis Segura-McNally, owner of Yunique International Travel Service, a Miami agency near the city's Little Havana neighborhood, said the embargo remains a serious inconvenience for U.S. agencies.

Segura-McNally said she welcomed the Fathom cruises but would like to see still more done.

"It's nice because we are very close in my case as a travel agency in Miami," she said. "I support it, but the embargo has to be addressed."

Fathom was announced last month, with the Dominican Republic as its first destination. The concept has passengers doing social projects in that country during a three-night stay at Carnival's Amber Cove port, due to open in October.

The roots of the brand go back two years, but about six months ago Carnival began exploring ways to enter Cuba before the embargo was lifted and still be in compliance with the law.

To go to Cuba, Americans must be engaged in one of 12 activities that promote interaction with the Cuban people, such as cultural, educational, artistic, humanitarian or faith-based exchanges.

"It wasn't the intended purpose of Fathom," said Carnival CEO Arnold Donald in a conference call last week, "but we realized as we got into it that it absolutely fit under the current guidelines for U.S. citizens to be able to travel to Cuba."

With the expansion of the project to Cuba, Donald said Fathom's 710-passenger Adonia will now alternate weekly sailings between Cuba and the Dominican Republic, starting in May.

The program in each country will be different, but each will have an immersive social/cultural focus, said Tara Russell, Fathom's president and global impact leader for Carnival Corp.

Because it has yet to secure approvals, itineraries in Cuba for Fathom have not yet been set, but Carnival expects to offer three ports, and Havana will almost certainly be one of them, Donald said.

Cuba's critics protest that money generated by tourism will support a government that suppresses dissent, but Donald said that Carnival's hope is to foster better relations and that the project strictly follows U.S. law.

"We go to nations all over the world, other nations where there are critical question marks and consternation and so on," Donald said. "Our goal in the cruise industry, in the travel industry, is to bring people together and have cultural exchanges, mutual learning through appreciation, and we think over time that's a good thing for a better world."

Although other lines such as Star Clippers and Cuba Cruise offer sailings in Cuba, they don't depart from the U.S.

"This will be the first time in well over 50 years that a cruise ship can take passengers from the U.S. to Cuba and return on any kind of a repeated basis," Donald said.

MSC plans to join the group of lines sailing from Cuba in December, with weeklong cruises that include two nights in Havana as well as stops in Jamaica, Mexico and the Cayman Islands.

Both lines will be getting invaluable practical experience with Cuba's infrastructure and government agencies, should the embargo be loosened or lifted in the future.

"In doing this, we'll learn a lot more about the ports," Donald said. "We'll be doing this with the Cuban players there in the country to make certain that as things evolve, the ports there will have an opportunity for input and to help contribute to what they want to build for their nation."

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