Getting a foothold in a potentially lucrative new market, Carnival Corp. announced Tuesday that it has approval from U.S. officials to begin travel to Cuba next year.
However, the world's largest cruise ship company won't be deploying one of its massive vessels carrying more than 3,000 tourists looking to party, drink rum and smoke Cuban cigars.
Initial trips to Cuba will be on a small cruise ship brand, carrying travelers who plan to volunteer or be involved in cultural exchange efforts in the communist country, the company said. Carnival received approval for the trips from the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments but still awaits approval from Cuba.
Still, cruise line experts say Carnival is laying the groundwork to eventually establish regular tourist trips to Cuba, a destination that is likely to be popular with cruise ship travelers who have already visited most of the ports in the Caribbean.
"All of the cruise lines have been anxiously awaiting the day when Cuba opens up," said Erik Hvide, managing partner for HMS Consulting, a consulting firm to the cruise industry. "Right now there is just that little crack for cultural, religious and welfare types of trips."
Although Cuba and the U.S. government have recently been in talks to establish full relations for the first time in more than half a century, travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba is still limited to visits for specific purposes, such as cultural exchange.
But under new rules announced by the Obama administration this year, Americans have fewer hurdles to jump before getting clearance to visit Cuba.
Carnival plans to travel to Cuba with a new brand, dubbed fathom, which is already planning to start sailing a 710-passenger ship to the Dominican Republic in April. Trips to Cuba would originate in Miami and begin in May.
"We know there is strong demand from travelers who want to immerse themselves in Cuban culture, so this is a historic opportunity for us to enable more people to experience Cuban society," said Arnold Donald, president and chief executive of Carnival Corp.
Carnival is already accepting reservations for future seven-day trips to Cuba, starting at $2,990 per person.