Americans who have always dreamed of cruising around Cuba can now do just that, thanks to relaxed travel restrictions adopted by the Obama administration in January.
Cuba Cruise, a Canadian tour company based in Calgary, Alberta, launched in 2013, is the first cruise line to offer Americans a chance to legally book trips themselves or through travel agents to sail around the Caribbean island nation that has been closed to U.S. citizens since 1962. In the past, American travelers seeking to visit Cuba would have had to go through a sanctioned U.S. tour operator that offered cultural-exchange tours. None of the major cruise lines, such as those run by the Carnival Corp., have similar offerings yet.
“When guests travel with us, they discover the country’s rich culture and history in unprecedented ways and engage with diverse Cubans from a variety of backgrounds, including musicians, dancers, service staff and academics,” said Dugald Wells, CEO and president of Cuba Cruise. “We are very proud to offer a safe, simple and comfortable way to experience Cuba, and we cannot wait to welcome Americans onboard.”
Since Cuba Cruise began offering Americans the option of booking through its website about two weeks ago, the company has seen an explosion in interest. Representative Melissa Medeiros told International Business Times that site traffic has tripled, while phone inquiries have doubled.
After Americans book their cruises -- costing between $480 and $1,600, depending on the sizes of the staterooms -- they must register with the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a people-to-people program that is partnered with Cuba Cruise. The cost of registration is $75. The nonprofit organization then issues travelers letters that authorize their passage to Cuba.
Passengers then set sail aboard the 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal ship, which departs for seven-night voyages every Monday from Havana and every Friday from Montego Bay, Jamaica. Cuba Cruise operates the cruises between December and March every year. Travelers can book air packages with the company that depart from Toronto, or they can find charter flights on their own to Havana. The cruises departing from Montego Bay are particularly easy for Americans, as there are plenty of direct flights to the Jamaican city from the U.S.
Circumnavigating the island, the ship visits six ports of call: Havana; Holguin; Santiago de Cuba; Montego Bay in Jamaica; Cienfuegos and Trinidad; and Punta Frances on the Isle of Youth. Travelers can enjoy excursions during the day and travel to their next port at night.
In addition to Havana’s historic charm, cruise passengers can explore white sand beaches in Punta Frances, enjoy the renowned music scene in Santiago and visit Holguin’s isolated La Mensura National Park or its Unesco-listed biosphere reserve, Cuchillas de Toa.
The experience aboard the ship is on par with other cruise lines. The Louis Cristal, with 480 staterooms, is outfitted with cruise-line standard offerings, including restaurants, lounges, a pool and a casino.
“The focus is on the destination,” Medeiros said. “There are Cuban crew members, performers and dancers onboard, but the Cuban experience really showcases itself on the shore excursions rather than on the ship itself.” For passengers interested in learning more about their destinations, there is a lecture series with University of Havana professors on the ship, as well.
And it’s not just the baby boomer set that’s interested in seeing Cuba by cruise, Medeiros said. “Our demographic is across the board. We do have the typical cruisers, of course, the baby boomers, but we see a lot of young couples and families, as well.”
For more information on Cuba Cruise, visit yourcubacruise.com.