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If Cuban officials open the door, Carnival's fathom would begin cruises from the US in May (Photo: Liz Gammon)

Carnival Corp. gets US green light for US-Cuba cruises

In a potentially history-making development, Carnival Corp. has been granted US licenses to operate direct US-Cuba cruises. Carnival aims to begin sailing from PortMiami to Cuba in May 2016 via fathom, its recently launched 'social impact' brand using the small ship Adonia.

'This is an historic opportunity. [For decades] until now, it was not permitted for a cruise ship to go from the US to Cuba and return to the US,' Tara Russell, president of fathom and global impact lead for Carnival Corp., told Seatrade Cruise News. 'We feel humbled, grateful and honored to deliver an American travel brand to Cuba.'

Carnival's fathom would operate cruises for the purpose of providing cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges, in compliance with US rules that allow licensed travel companies to transport approved travelers to Cuba to engage in activities that support the Cuban people.

Carnival is in active discussions with Cuban authorities to gain their approval.

It is the second major Cuba cruise program to be announced in a matter of days. However, MSC Cruises' initiative is very different from Carnival's. MSC Opera will sail a season of cruises from Havana starting this winter and is not marketed to US citizens. MSC has received Cuban authorization for its program.

Royal Caribbean chairman and ceo Richard Fain recently told investors the so-called Helms-Burton Act likely would have to change before US-based lines could sail to Cuba. That 1996 law extended the US trade embargo to foreign companies doing business with the island.

An attorney knowledgeable about US-Cuba matters said that since MSC's headquarters are in Europe and most likely its Florida sales and marketing office and personnel have no involvement in the Cuba operation, MSC probably is not subject to US jurisdiction in Helms-Burton. It would be tough, in his view, for a US-based company like Carnival or Royal Caribbean to comply by offering Cuba cruises via one of their European subsidiaries.

But Carnival's approach is via a brand clearly established for people-to-people exchanges that complies with the types of travel newly sanctioned by the Obama administration.

Carnival's fathom is to begin humanitarian-focused cruises between Miami and the Dominican Republic in April. Miami-Cuba cruises would start the following month, and week-long sailings from Miami would alternate between Cuba and the Dominican Republic over the long term.

'We are excited about receiving US approval as the very important first step to ultimately take travelers to Cuba under the existing 12 criteria for authorized travel,' Carnival Corp. president and ceo Arnold Donald said Tuesday. 'We look forward to working with the Cuban authorities for their approval to help make the social, cultural and humanitarian exchanges between US citizens and the people of Cuba a reality.'

Russell told Seatrade Cruise News the hope is that the seven-day cruises would visit multiple locations within Cuba. 'We anticipate at least three ports,' she said, adding that Carnival has identified 11 potential ports on this large island. The 710-passenger Adonia's small size gives flexibility; it can access many destinations and can tender if berthing isn't feasible.

From today, travelers can book fathom by making an initial deposit via fathom.org, with the company's call center or via a travel agent. Prices for the seven-day Cuba trip start at $2,990 per person, excluding taxes, port and other government and related fees—which aren't known yet. The Dominican Republic trips to new port Amber Cove near Puerto Plata, start at $1,540 per person, including taxes and fees.

Carnival's plans underwent an extensive review by the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions, and by the Department of Commerce. The process has been under way for several months.

Russell said discussions with the Cuban authorities are just beginning and involve a broad range areas such as transport, food and beverage supplies, artistic and educational activities, and more.

'Our desire, first and foremost, is to learn what Cuba's needs are,' she said.

While a number of Florida-based ferry operators received US approval in May for Cuba service, they still await Cuba's go-ahead.

Even if they are approved, a fathom cruise would be 'a totally different experience,' Russell said. 'Ours is holistic in nature ... a uniquely differentiated value [in terms of] food, safety and cleanliness.'

Prior to sailing for fathom, Adonia is to undergo a 2.5-week drydock for routine maintenance in March. Only small changes and adaptations are planned for the ship that currently operates for P&O Cruises.

'We're not moving any walls,' as Russell put it. 'Fathom exists to enrich the lives of travelers and have social impact. We don't want to invest all our resources in the ship.'

Within three days of the fathom brand's unveiling in early June, the company registered 3.5bn media impressions. 'We're delighted by the reception in the marketplace,' Russell said. 'The world is hungry for the opportunity to travel with a purpose.'

The brand expects to attract 37,000 annual travelers who collectively could spend a total of more than 100,000 days a year volunteering or immersing in educational and cultural exchanges in local communities.

Should demand warrant, 'In future we could envision a growing fleet of fathom ships,' Russell said, adding that the target markets prefer a smaller ship environment. There are a number of small ships within the Carnival group, she said, with the potential to join the fathom fleet.

[Related story: 'Fathom's Cuba and Dominican Republic programming will differ']

 

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