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First US cruise in decades docks in Havana

Adalberto Roque, AFP | A man waves a Cuban flag at the Malecon waterfront as the first US-to-Cuba cruise ship to arrive in the island nation in decades glides into the port of Havana, on May 2, 2016

The first American cruise ship in nearly 40 years crossed the Florida Straits from Miami and docked in Havana on Monday, restarting commercial travel on waters that served as a stage for a half-century of Cold War hostility.


Carnival Cruise Line’s gleaming white 704-passenger Adonia became the first US cruise ship in Havana since President Jimmy Carter eliminated virtually all restrictions of US travel to Cuba in the late 1970s. Travel limits were restored after Carter left office and US cruises to Cuba only become possible again after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente on December 17, 2014.

The Adonia’s arrival is the first step toward a future in which thousands of ships a year could cross the Florida Straits, long closed to most US-Cuba traffic due to tensions that once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The straits were blocked by the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis and tens of thousands of Cubans have fled across them to Florida on homemade rafts – with untold thousands dying in the process.

The number of Cubans trying to cross the straits is at its highest point in eight years, and cruises and merchant ships regularly rescue rafters from the straits.

If traffic increases as expected, the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council estimates that the cruises can earn Cuba more than $80 million (€70 million) a year. Most of the money will go directly to the Cuban government, council head John Kavulich said in a report Monday.

'Welcoming, Joyous Mood'

So far, more than a dozen lines have announced plans to run cruises between the two countries.

In a live interview with FRANCE 24 on Monday, Francisco Dominguez, the head of the Latin American Studies Centre at Middlesex University, said he expects American tourism in Cuba “to explode into something extraordinary”.

“The number of [American tourists] can easily go to one million in the first year and possibly two million in the second,” he said, noting that Cuba currently welcomes between 3.4 to 4 million tourists a year but has the capacity to host around 10 million.

He also said that the normalisation of ties will help improve the Americans and the Cubans perception of each other.

“I think it will be positive on both sides.”

‘People-to-people educational travel’

The Adonia is scheduled to cruise twice a month from Miami to Havana, where it will start a $1,800 per person seven-day circuit of Cuba with stops in the cities of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. The trips include on-board workshops on Cuban history and culture, and tours of the cities that make them qualify as “people-to-people” educational travel, avoiding a ban on pure tourism that remains part of US law.

Before the 1959 Cuban revolution, cruise ships regularly travelled from the US to Cuba, with elegant Caribbean cruises departing from New York and $42 overnight weekend jaunts leaving twice a week from Miami, said Michael L Grace, an amateur cruise ship historian.

There were also cruises departing from New Orleans.

“Cuba was a very big destination for Americans, just enormous,” he said.

Cruises dwindled in the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution and ended entirely after Castro overthrew the US-backed government.

After Carter dropped limits on Cuba travel, 400 passengers, including musical legend Dizzy Gillespie sailed from New Orleans to Cuba on a 1977 “Jazz Cruise” aboard the MS Daphne. Like the Adonia, it sailed despite dockside protests by Cuban exiles, and continued protests and bomb threats forced Carras Cruises to cancel additional sailings, Grace said.

The following year, however, Daphne made a several cruises from New Orleans to Cuba and other destinations in the Caribbean.

‘Floating hotels’

Cuba cut back on all cruise tourism in 2005 with Fidel Castro blasting cruise ships during a 4.5 hour speech on state television.

“Floating hotels come, floating restaurants, floating theatres, floating diversions visit countries to leave their trash, their empty cans and papers for a few miserable cents,” he said.

Today, the Cuban government sees cruises as an easy source of revenue that can bring thousands more American travellers without placing additional demand on the country’s maxed-out food supplies and overbooked hotels.

Before detente, Americans made surreptitious yacht trips to Cuba during Caribbean vacations and the number of Americans coming by boat has climbed since 2014, including passengers on cruise ships registered in third countries and sailing from other ports in the Caribbean. Traffic remains low, however, for a major tourist attraction only 145 kilometres from Florida.

Aiming to change that as part of a policy of diplomatic and economic normalisation, Obama approved US cruises to Cuba in 2015.

Cruise traffic is key to the Cuban government’s reengineering of the industrial Port of Havana as a tourist attraction. After decades of treating the more than 500-year-old bay as a receptacle for industrial waste, the government is moving container traffic to the Port of Mariel west of the city, tearing out abandoned buildings and slowly renovating decrepit warehouses as breweries and museums connected by waterfront promenades.

Cruise dockings will be limited by the port’s single cruise terminal, which can handle two ships at a time.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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