In March 2016, Carnival Corporation gained approval to sail a ship to Cuba, marking the first stop there by a US cruise line for several decades. The announcement, which came during President Obama’s historic visit to the island, was emblematic of a wider change. As diplomatic relations between the two nations began to thaw, Cuba no longer seemed quite so out of bounds.

Under the US trade embargo, US tourists have been barred from visiting Cuba since 1963. While thousands have travelled there all the same, taking advantage of various exemptions, it wasn’t until recently that the restrictions began to ease.

Carnival’s ship, MV Adonia, belongs to the new Fathom line. Because Fathom was set up for ‘social impact’ cruising, passengers were able to travel under the pretext of cultural exchange. Specifically, their visit counted as a ‘people-to-people’ trip, in which the activity schedule produced ‘meaningful interaction between the traveller and individuals in Cuba’.

The ship initially denied reservations to Cuban-born citizens under a long-standing rule that prevented them returning by sea. This rule, however, was lifted just in time for the inaugural voyage. When the vessel entered Havana Harbor on 2 May, to tremendous fanfare, there were Cuban nationals on board.

Matching the competition

According to Carnival, the new destination came in response to significant pent-up demand. Bookings were so robust that Fathom scrapped two sailings to the Dominican Republic to make room for extra trips to Cuba. Though Fathom itself will be discontinued by June 2017, Carnival will visit the island with its other brands.

“As the first US cruise line to sail to Cuba in over 40 years, we have been able to offer something unique and enriching to our guests,” says Carnival spokesperson Roger Frizzell. “Today, we are only sailing there on one small ship, but we have been very pleased with our first season of cruising and look forward to the opportunities coming later this year.”

Although Carnival has courted the most headlines, it is not the only cruise company to offer trips to Cuba. The first Cuban itinerary came as early as 2013, when Cypriot cruise line Celestyal sent a ship to circumnavigate the island. Today, Celestyal Crystal sails there all year round, offering two days in Havana alongside calls at Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.

Since then, many others have gained approval and, as the US restrictions relax, the numbers have continued to grow. The early movers were predominantly smaller operators, including luxury French line Ponant and US-based Pearl Seas Cruises, but we have now reached a point where the major players have some serious skin in the game.

"I cannot wait for our loyal guests to experience the sights and sounds of my hometown of Havana, and get to know its rich culture, and warm and welcoming residents."

Take MSC Cruises, the first global cruise line to homeport in Havana. Two of its ships – MSC Opera and MSC Armonia – offer Caribbean itineraries that start and finish in Cuba. Then there’s Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which offers sailings on all three of its brands (Norwegian, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises).

“As a Cuban-American and founder of Oceania Cruises, I am incredibly proud that one of Oceania’s vessels will be our company’s first to sail to Cuba,” said Frank del Rio, president and CEO of NCLupon, making the announcement. “This is truly a dream come true for me. I cannot wait for our loyal guests to experience the sights and sounds of my hometown of Havana, and get to know its rich culture, and warm and welcoming residents.”

Why Cuba?

Other than the warmth of its residents, why has Cuba become such an on-trend destination? The attraction is no mystery. First, there is undoubtedly the element of forbidden fruit that came with the US embargo. And second, Cuba is renowned for being less Americanised than the other Caribbean islands. Given the current trend towards experiential travel, in which authenticity is enshrined as the ultimate virtue, it makes sense that tourists would hanker after a place they deem ‘unspoiled’. Cuba is often spoken of as a place like no other on Earth – devoid of advertising, commercial TV, private enterprise and all the trappings of external influence. Many visitors have discussed wanting to go there before this changes.

“The number-one reason people choose to cruise is destination, and Cuba becoming more accessible can only be good for tourists,” says Richard Twyman, managing director of UK and Ireland for Azamara Club Cruises. “You’ve got this incredible city in Havana that is very vibrant and colourful but has been trapped in the 1960s for a long period of time. Being able to see that makes it hugely of interest. Particularly in the US, there’s also a large expat Cuban community that now has the ability to go there.”

Azamara, along with its parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises, has had Cuba on its radar for a while. Its first visit to the island will take place in March, when the Azamara Quest embarks on a 13-day round trip from Miami. Sister brand Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, lays claim to the largest ship to sail to Cuba from the US – the 1,602-passenger vessel Empress of the Seas, which will pay its first visit in April.

Creative cruising

As the market becomes more saturated, we are likely to see a range of creative attempts to steal a march on the competition. Twyman believes that the strength of the Cuban stopover (styled in Azamara’s marketing as Destination Immersion) will be the key factor in setting the cruise line apart.

“Azamara stays overnight and that’s a core part of what we do as a brand,” he says. “It’s brilliant to be able to do that in Havana. Most cruise lines leave at 5pm, so its great to be able to experience night in Havana with all the music, food and culture that’s available to you.”

He points out, however, that operators are somewhat hamstrung in what they can provide.

“The ground infrastructure there is still operated by the government, so the diversity on offer at the moment is more limited than it is in other destinations,” he says. “While Cuba has had quite a big impact for us, you need to be realistic about it. It’s a great new destination, but we’ve got no plans to do just a Cuban itinerary at this point – it will remain a port of call among other Caribbean itineraries and I think that will be the way many cruise lines address it.”

It may be that the burgeoning Cuban tourist industry can’t have it both ways: if it wants to retain the island’s untarnished nature, it will need to work within certain constraints. Cuba’s ageing ports are limited in numbers, with only three berths in Havana; English speakers are rare; the complex monetary system is apt to cause problems; and the ban on US travel (while no longer strictly enforced) has yet to be fully lifted. In addition, the recent change of government may have unforeseen effects, which could prove an extra spur to caution for cruise lines.

"Cuba will remain a port of call among other Caribbean itineraries and I think that will be the way many cruise lines address it."

That said, if you’re one of the thousands of Americans who have booked a trip this spring, you are likely to be less concerned with what you can’t do and more concerned with what you can. If you pay a visit, you will surely feel like part of something historically significant – an experience absent from your average vacation.

Operators have long been required to plot Caribbean itineraries that omit its largest island, so the chance to visit Cuba also means a roster of new possibilities.

“Cuba provides our brands – and the cruise industry – an opportunity to refresh our Caribbean offerings. We continue to see strong demand, especially since cruising provides the greatest vacation value for travellers to Cuba,” says Frizzell.

Uncertain futures

Twynam says it’s hard to predict what the future holds for Cuba as a cruise destination. Only time can tell whether the island will remain an important port of call or whether interest will naturally die down once Cuba falls off the news agenda. Furthermore, the intentions of President Trump regarding the Caribbean island remain uncertain – he has previously tweeted that if Cuba is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole”, he would terminate the deal.

“President Obama put Cuba right in front of the news and it was natural that tourism would follow,” Frizzell says. “I’d like to see Cuba open up and for there to be more opportunities to visit different parts of the island, but I think it’s just slowly, slowly on this one, and who knows?”