On May 1, 2016, Carnival Corporation's Fathom Cruises will begin cruising to Cuba from Miami. “Its an extraordinary event - - the first time in over 50 years a cruise ship will go to and from Cuba [from the United States]. We are just very privileged and honored to be in the position to be the first ones to do that. It is going to be a great inaugural year. There will be sailings every other week and the celebration will last a lot longer than this initial sailing,” commented Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation.
Carnival has had sailing to Cuba in mind almost from the conception of its Fathom brand. Fathom was created to develop a new category of cruising, which Carnival Corp. calls “social impact travel.” Fathom seeks to create deep connections between travelers and the destinations where the line travels. It was conceived of as a line for people who want something beyond the ordinary and who want to make a difference.
“When we were planning to launch Fathom, we realized that it fell into one of the approved forms of travel to Cuba.” Mr. Donald recalled. “So we originally submitted to OFAC [U.S.] and once we got OFAC approval, we submitted to Cuba, that was late last summer. We only recently got Cuban approval a few short weeks ago when the President was in Cuba.”
At this point, a cruise to Cuba will be different than a cruise to other Caribbean islands. It would not be about shopping and lulling on a beach. Instead, under the current legal framework, the purpose of the cruise will be to facilitate cultural exchange.
“A number of people are hesitant because they think its a super restriction and the reality is that it is going to be a great experience. They will be able to do things like Tropicabana, the salsa, the nightlife and all that. There is the cultural exchange aspect but we'll take care of that for people. We'll keep the records. If they book with us it will be very easy, we'll facilitate the visa process and whatever.” Mr. Donald explained.
“There is going to be lots of stuff onboard during the two days at sea. The Adonia is a beautiful ship, premium ship. It is small, 704 guests, very intimate. They'll be plenty to do and plenty to see and just pure fun.”
Ms. Tara Russell, President of Fathom, elaborated: “The beauty of the Fathom experience in Cuba is that we have a wide variety of options both onboard and ashore. We really believe the opportunity to travel by sea is the best way to see the country. You can literally unpack once. You have incredible food onboard You have incredible music. We have a band from Cuba that will sail with us and Cuban music aboard. We have workshops and amazing content onboard that really helps our travelers deeply immerse in the culture of Cuba whether they are onboard or ashore.”
Once in Cuba, “whether you really have an interest in cigar making or architecture or you are passionate about art, it will be a really unique opportunity for exploration and discovery and tons of fun. Each of the [port] cities is very different. It was very intentional that we choose those three different locations. We wanted our travelers both onboard and ashore to have a really diverse array and understanding of Cuba both in Havana and beyond. We think that in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos, our travelers will get a really beautiful mix of the heritage, the history, the people, the fun and the diversity of talent that really lives in the island of Cuba.”
“While you are in Havana, you will have all kinds of opportunities to explore Havana - - the architecture, the art, the food, the music, the historic culture there that is really rich and vibrant. . We also have fun music, dining. A lot of opportunities to visit Cuban polidares, which are beautiful homes located in historic Havana where entrepreneurs have created restaurants out of their homes. The opportunity for hearing the story of the Cuban people through the local art work are just endless within the city. We've got opportunities to ride in old cars, opportunities .to learn different dance and music culture. It is going to be an extraordinary experience really.”
Fathom's cruises to Cuba will leave from Miami and will have a seven day itinerary that will include Havana, Santiago de Cuba and Cienfuegos. As indicated above, the cruises will be on the Adonia, which has been redeployed from P&O Cruises to Fathom (see Adonia profile).
The cruises will be open to all travelers including people who were born in Cuba. Achieving this, required negotiation.
"Historically, anybody born in Cuba, whether they live in Cuba today or not, was not allowed to travel to and from Cuba by sea,” explained Mr. Donald. Cuban-born people were, however, permitted to travel to and from Cuba by air. “From the very beginning, we realized that there was this decades old practice that affected travel by sea. We saw that it wasn't a level playing field with air charter operations and brought it up early in the conversations.”
In late April 2016, the Cuban government announced that it was amending its practice to allow Cuban-born people to travel to Cuba by cruise ship and by commerical vessels. “My opinion is once they decided to accept cruises as a contributor to the people exchange and additional economic development within Cuba that they also realized that having a disparity between air travel and cruises could be an inhibitor. I think the rest was just them sorting out how far to take it.”
As a result. Cuban-born travelers “will book with us but just like any passenger who books on any of our lines - - [the guests] are required to obtain visa and proper papers for whatever country they are going into. We will facilitate that the best we can but in the end it is between the individual and the country.”
“Our understanding is that currently those who emigrated prior to January 1, 1971 have to get a special visa if they were born in Cuba. Those who emigrated after January 1, 1971 who were born in Cuba have to have a Cuban passport. That is currently the requirements if they want to travel by air. Our understanding is that the requirements will be similar.”
The response to Fathom's Cuban cruise offerings has not been limited to Cuban-born Americans. “We continue to see great enthusiasm from travelers in the US who want to sail to Cuba. We are very happy where we are. We are ready to go. We have a number of the cruises well into booking.”
Ms. Russell added: “We are hoping to see a diverse mix traveling with us. We look forward to the opportunity to sail. The phones are flying off the hook and that is a good thing.”
Carnival's interest in Cuba is not limited to cruises by Fathom. In the future, Mr. Donald expects to see other Carnival brands cruising to Cuba. “Over time, we will bring the other brands. First of all we have to get approval, so Cuba will decide when those brands come. Right now, the earliest would be in the fall, sometime in the fall would be the earliest.”
Cruise Interview - - Carnival Corporation/ Fathom - - Arnold Donald, President and CEO, Tara Russell, Fathom President