As passengers cheered, Carnival Corp.’s Fathom Adonia arrived at Havana harbor on Monday morning, officially reestablishing the U.S. cruise business in Cuba.
The voyage of the Adonia, with about 600 passengers aboard, was the first trip from a U.S. port directly to Cuba in more than 50 years, and the importance of the historic trip wasn’t lost on anyone.
Aboard the ship, cruise passengers waved Cuban and American flags. In the Old Havana terminals, Cuban flags and banners from Havantur, the official tourism agency, were draped along the second-floor balcony as a crowd of officials, port workers and media welcomed the ship.
The ship officially docked at 10:24 a.m.
First to step on Cuban soil was Carnival’s chief legal counsel, Arnie Pérez and his wife, Carmen. Until the last round of negotiations, the Cuba-born couple could not have sailed; it wasn’t until April 22 that the Cuban government agreed to lift a Cold War-era ban that prohibited Cuba-born visitors from returning to the country by sea.
Pérez was followed off the ship by Carnival executives, including President and CEO Arnold Donald.
Passengers came next as they headed into Old Havana for a walking tour of the cobbled colonial city and a people-to-people program slated to include a visit with a coffee roaster, lunch at a privately owned restaurant and a visit with artists at Havana’s famed Taller Grafico Experimental, a cooperative printworks.
For those aboard, the Havana visit began when the first hazy outlines of the Havana skyline appeared on the horizon about 7 a.m., and excitement aboard the Adonia began to build.
About 7:45 a.m. when the city was still about seven or eight miles away, Captain David Box came on the public address system, noting the great dome of Havana’s Cathedral was clearly visible and pointing out that Havana, founded in 1515, was once known as the “Rome of the Caribbean.”
“We’ll never forget this day,” he said.
By 9:30, the ship arrived at the mouth of Havana harbor, where it lingered before finally docking almost an hour later.
Although the Adonia is a small cruise ship — it has to be because a tunnel passes under Havana harbor, making it inaccessible for larger, deeper-draft vessels — it has a loud horn that it sounded as it slowly glided into the harbor around 9 a.m., where it stopped before it was to head to the Sierra Maestra terminal.
“Our ship is small but our ship’s horn is huge and will reverberate across the world,” Box said.
Cubans along the shore and workers at a restaurant at El Morro Castle whistled and wave as the Adonia entered the channel on a bright, sunny day.
“Good morning, Cuba,” exclaimed the Carnival Corp. CEO Donald as he invited guests to an 8 a.m. poolside party as the ship neared Havana. “Just enjoy this very special day.”
The band started playing and drinks started to flow more than three hours before the passengers were allowed to disembark for their first day of people-to-people tours.
The week-long cruise will circumnavigate Cuba and will also stop in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. As a people-to-people trip, the voyage is supposed to encourage interactions with the Cuban people.
While baking on the beach is not part of any people-to-people agenda, a wide variety of cultural and artistic activities are permitted.
“It’s exciting to be part of this historic voyage,” said Shirley Thurman, a retiree from St. Augustine who was making the trip with her husband. “I am so glad we are normalizing relations with Cuba. I think the common people in Cuba have been the ones who have suffered over the years.”
Thurman said she had no desire to come to Cuba before the U.S. government began liberalizing travel rules, making it easier for a greater variety of Americans to travel to the island as part of an opening toward Havana that began on Dec. 17, 2014.
But the night that Carnival announced the Fathom Adonia would be making its first voyage to Cuba, her husband was on the phone making reservations for the cruise.
All the cabins were sold out for the maiden voyage, although single occupancies meant the ship traveled somewhat below its 704-passenger capacity.
Pérez, the Carnival attorney, hadn’t been back since last year when he began helping negotiating the deal that led to the Adonia’s entry into the Cuban market.
The only member of his immediate family who remains in Cuba is an 89-year-old aunt who lives outside Santiago de Cuba. When the Adonia stops in Santiago, he plans to see the aunt he has never met, he said.
The first meeting with Cuba as Fathom tried to forge a cruise deal was back in July and final approval didn’t come until mid-March, he said.
However, Carnival and Fathom executives didn’t count on the type of backlash they would get in Miami when they started to deny Cuban-born travelers passage on the ship. They were abiding by a Cuban policy from the Cold War era that bars those born in Cuba from entering or leaving the island by vessel, making a cruise an impossible journey for those born on the island.
But Cuban exiles swung into action, protesting what they saw as a discriminatory policy that didn’t put the Cuban-born on equal footing with other travelers. Two lawsuits were filed against the cruise lines and opposition to the cruise began piling up.
Carnival shifted gears, saying it would sell tickets to Cuban-born travelers and would delay the Adonia’s first trip, if necessary, until Cuba changed its policy.
“We made it clear we wouldn’t go if they didn’t change the policy,” said Pérez, who was involved in the last-minute negotiations.
On April 22, a statement that appeared in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, made it clear that cruise liners and merchant ships would no longer be subject to the policy.
“Yes, it should have been done earlier. They realize that,” said Pérez. But he said on Sunday, the day the Adonia left PortMiami, he got a message from the Cuban Embassy in Washington expressing hope that the cruise would go well.
“The time is now to do something different toward Cuba,” Pérez said. "We're engaging with people and we are hoping for the best."