Add cruise giant Carnival Corp. to the list of travel companies starting up trips to Cuba.
The parent company of Carnival, Princess and eight other cruise brands says it'll launch seven-night "people-to-people" tours to the island via ship beginning in May 2016, contingent on approval by Cuban authorities.
The cruises will be operated bi-weekly out of Miami by the company's new social impact-focused fathom brand, which will debut in April 2016 with volunteer vacations to the Dominican Republic.
"All of our research suggests there is huge pent-up demand for the Cuba experience," Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald tells USA TODAY, noting that it's been decades since cruise ships sailed from the USA to the island.
The announcement comes in the wake of the Obama administration's recent moves to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and loosen rules for U.S. travel to the island nation.
While leisure travel to Cuba including traditional cruises still is banned under the USA's five-decade-old embargo, U.S. travelers who fall under one of 12 approved categories now can legally visit the country without needing a license in advance. The categories include traveling for educational activities such as people-to-people exchanges.
Carnival Corp. says the new Cuba cruises will be offered on fathom's single ship, the 710-passenger Adonia, and provide "cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens" -- meeting the definition of people-to-people travel. Traveling for humanitarian projects and religious activities also are among the 12 approved categories of travel to Cuba.
The company says it has been granted necessary approvals for the voyages from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Commerce and hopes to have approval from the Cuban government soon.
Carnival Corp. didn't release details of the itinerary it plans for the Cuba trips, citing the need for Cuban government approval. But U.S. travelers can reserve a spot on a voyage starting today by putting down a $600 deposit. Fares initially will begin at $2,990 per person plus taxes and port fees -- more than triple the starting price for a typical seven-night Caribbean sailing with Carnival Corp.'s flagship Carnival brand. The fare will include all on-board social impact-related activities and some on-the-ground cultural immersion activities.
The announcement comes just two weeks after package tour giant Apple Vacations announced plans to start people-to-people tours to Cuba, joining a growing number of land-based tour companies offering such trips. But what Carnival Corp. will be offering with its trips on fathom's Adonia will be unique, says Donald, citing the ship's high-quality accommodations and on-board experience.
The venture also could help position Carnival Corp. for the day when the U.S. embargo of Cuba is lifted and the company's mass-market brands such as Carnival and Princess can begin offering traditional-style cruises to the island.
"We think this experience as a standalone (business venture) is warranted unto itself, but clearly ... it will give us a much more intimate understanding (of operating in Cuba) to prepare ultimately for whenever the embargo is lifted," Donald says.
"It's hopefully a precursor to what's to come," Donald adds. "We can only do so much under the cultural exchange (style of travel). Right now we only have the one ship. Once the embargo is lifted you will have many, many ships going."
By Gene Sloan, USA Today
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