Cuba Cruises Make Travel to the Island Easy

As the government loosens travel restrictions to Cuba, many Americans are choosing to visit the island via cruise ship. Here's why.

It’s easier than ever before for Americans to visit Cuba as President Obama has loosened travel restrictions. But loosening rules isn’t the same as eliminating them. Restrictions still exist on travel to Cuba although changes may occur at any time.

Visiting Americans must fit one of the 12 entry options allowed by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). For most tourists that’s the “people to people” (P2P) program, which requires that visitors spend much of their time ashore taking part in educational and cultural encounters.

On a Cuba cruise, as opposed to a land-based vacation, the cruise line obtains the required visas, completes any necessary forms and makes sure that the time ashore meets OFAC requirements. That’s why the first eight hours in any part are devoted to group tours, which are included in the cruise price. Passengers go on architectural tours, visit cigar factories, meet musicians, and explore UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Group IST (International Specialty Travel) offers seven-night voyages around Cuba on sailing yachts that depart from Havana. Passengers fly to Havana on chartered flights from Miami. Panorama I carries 46 passengers and Panorama II carries 48 passengers.

Fathom, Carnival Corp.’s “social impact” brand, launches its first cruise from Miami to Cuba on May 1, the first regularly scheduled ship to sail to Cuba from the US in 50 years. (Fathom’s 704-passenger Adonia is currently doing preview cruises for media and travel agents.)

Pearl Seas Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, and Oceania Cruises, part of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH), also anticipate gaining permission soon for voyages.

We asked Naomi Kabak, senior vice president, Group IST- International Specialty Travel, about Cuba cruises.

What are the advantages to sailing to Cuba on the Panorama as opposed to cruising on a bigger vessel?

“The experience of being on a mega-yacht with a maximum of 46 passengers, together with a program manager and a local Cuban guide offering lectures and discussions on various subjects involving history, art, architecture, culture, development, etc. in Cuba, being able to get up close. (There’s) time for snorkeling and swimming after the participating in meaningful exchanges with locals, no long wait for the tender to take you to land.”

In the last year, have you seen an increase in the demand for US travelers to Cuba? If so, what is fueling the interest?

“Yes (there’s been an increase.) People want to see Cuba before it becomes just another mass tourist destination full of chain hotels, chain restaurants, etc. Folks are less frightened to travel to Cuba and it’s easier to make arrangements to travel under a licensed program.”

What are people looking for?

“In addition to cigars and mojitos, (people) are interested in the culture—the music and art and how the Cuban people are accepting the current changes. What is Cuban society really like after living in a Communist country for more than 50 years? Will the current government really allow democratization? What do the Cuban people really think about us and how do we look forward to the expansion of our relationship in business, the arts, and sciences?”

Anything else that you want to say?

“We (Group IST and the Panorama ships) don’t have to worry about overbookings in hotels (and there is much of that) as we control our own cabin space, (there’s) no real unpacking and packing for the duration of the program, (and the) small group allows for flexibility.”