Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

One of the peculiarities of traveling to Cuba by sea is that it is an option for older U.S. residents who were born in Cuba but don't hold a Cuban passport.

It wasn't always so. When Carnival Corp. made the breakthrough in scheduling a cruise on its Fathom ship between the U.S. and Cuba, the cruises could not be sold to Americans born in Cuba, in keeping with longstanding policies of the Cuban government. Anyone born in Cuba was not welcome to return on a cruise ship or any other kind of ship. That didn't sit well with the influential Cuban community in Miami, which mounted a protest outside of Carnival's headquarters.

Carnival quickly worked out a solution with the Cuban government that let the cruises proceed and allowed Cuban-born U.S. residents to book them. The Fathom began sailing in 2016.

Flash forward three years, and another company is taking advantage of the opening forged by Carnival.

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line will dispatch its 1,300 passenger Grand Classica ship on Valentine's Day on a four-day, roundtrip cruise to Havana from the Port of Palm Beach. A main draw is music, specifically three bands that specialize in Cuban pop and dance music.

But in addition to the salseros on board, there will be a contingent of abuelas, said Peter Regalado, CEO of Viva Travel & Tours, a Miami-area travel agency that is working with Bahamas Paradise to fill the cruise.

For Cuban-born Americans traveling back to Cuba, the Cuban government requires either a $460 Cuban passport for those who left the island after 1970, or a $220 HE-11 humanitarian visa for those who left before. "There's a lot of people of the older age, they don't want to do that," Regalado said.

"My mother has had an American passport for the last 40 years, and she says: 'why would I get a Cuban passport that's going to cost me $500 to go to my native country?'" he continued. "So she's opposed to that. [The Bahamas Paradise cruise] gives her a chance to come on board, go to Cuba, meet her aunt who she hasn't seen in 50 years onboard, and enjoy three days with her."

Regalado was quick to point out that other cruise lines could provide the same service. "Any Cuban can go on a cruise; it's not particular to us. The only difference is, we're using it in a different way," he said.

The cruise is unusual in another aspect: When the ship stops in Havana, it will allow Cuban friends and family of passengers to join the cruise and sail for two nights. The passengers who embarked in Cuba will disembark on the return call to Havana, and the vessel will proceed back to the U.S.

The concert at sea will take place on the two nights between Havana calls. The bands featured are a blend of U.S. and Cuban residents. "These are very young bands. A lot of the older folks won't connect with them," Regalado acknowledged. "I will tell you it's the easiest and best way to get the [phone] calls in. If you booked somebody older, we would not get one call into the office," he said with a laugh.

So music will be the key to making the broader cruise happen. "Everyone has their political differences, but on the music side no one sees differences," Regalado said. "And then on the family side there's a lot of people who would like to see people they haven't seen in a very long time. And this is an opportunity to do that."

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