Foreign cruise lines offer Americans way into Cuba

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Now that the U.S. government has reopened the door to "people-to-people" travel to Cuba, cruise lines are likely anticipating the day when they can legally disembark American passengers at the port of Havana.

But it turns out that cruise companies based outside the U.S. have quietly been providing a back-door entry to Cuba for some time.

Using this back door can be pretty expensive, however, since it can mean first traveling to a foreign country, then flying from there to a port outside the U.S.

For example, Fred Olsen Cruise Line, the Norwegian line headquartered in London, operates its 927-passenger Braemar on a series of 14- and 15-night Caribbean sailings that include Cuba.

The trips, which are available through March 2012, are sold as fly-cruise packages from the U.K., and the ship homeports in Barbados.

Fred Olson does not turn away U.S. passengers, but neither have Americans been clamoring for the product.

"There have been some American passengers, but very few," said Fred Olsen spokeswoman Jill Channing.

FredOlsenCruiseLine-BraemarShe added that when U.S. travelers inquire about the cruise, they are "put in touch directly" with the cruise line's reservation center.

"They are treated as direct-book passengers," Channing said.

She said that American citizens on a Fred Olsen cruise that visits Cuba are required to have "tourist visas like every other passenger, regardless of nationality."

It is the policy of the Cuban government to issue visas to U.S. citizens at their port of entry to the country, be it an airport or a pier.

Channing added that U.S. citizens must "understand they are booking this itinerary at their own risk. Some will travel on a non-U.S. passport if they have dual nationality."

Several excursions are offered in Cuba, she noted, such as a city tour of Santiago and an evening at the Tropicana nightclub in Havana.

"The Cuba itinerary is very popular," she added.

The line also will operate its 880-passenger Boudicca from Southampton on a 35-night Cuba and the Caribbean cruise departing Jan. 19. This trip includes an overnight in Havana.

Thomson Cruises, a unit of U.K. travel company Thomson Holidays, homeported its 1,500-passenger Thomson Dream in Barbados last winter and featured overnight calls at the port of Havana in its 14-night itineraries.

Cuba is not on the ship's roster for next winter, according to spokeswoman Hannah Burden, because the ship will offer seven-night sailings, and the distance between Barbados and Cuba is too great for the shorter cruises.

But, she said, "We are always amending and adapting our itineraries in line with passenger requirements, so we are not ruling out reintroducing the port in the future."

It is unclear whether Americans sailed aboard Thomson's Cuba itineraries last winter, but Burden noted, "Our cruise holidays are not available to buy outside the U.K."

U.S. government licenses in the "people-to-people" travel category are meant for small-group tour operators, which must apply to the U.S. Treasury and be sanctioned by that agency.

Since 2004, restrictions have limited leisure travel to Cuba for all but religious, academic and cultural groups. The operator Insight Cuba, based in New Rochelle, N.Y., late last month became the first to receive the new license.

No such legal provision has been made to enable cruise lines carrying American passengers to make port calls in Cuba.

RichardSasso"If we could do it, we’d be doing it," said Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA. "If the U.S. were to lift restrictions, you’d see cruise ships calling at Havana or other Cuba ports, but that lifting has not taken place. It’s only these one-off permit operators, not open-ended tourism."

A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department said that U.S. policy "is to allow travel by airplane only."

"The United States does not license the use of any waterborne vessel to provide carrier services for authorized travelers between the U.S. and Cuba," she said. "Persons subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. are prohibited from engaging in transactions involving Cuba unless authorized."

Like other cruise lines based outside the U.S., MSC Cruises could offer Cuba calls on ships that depart from a non-U.S. port. But because the line carries mostly American passengers on its Caribbean itineraries, visiting Cuba doesn't make sense, Sasso said. Besides, he noted, MSC Cruises' ships currently sail from Fort Lauderdale.

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