Sailing soon from the U.S. to Cuba: ships from Norwegian and Royal Caribbean

In this May 2, 2016 file photo, Carnival's Fathom cruise line ship Adonia arrives from Miami in Havana, Cuba. The Cuban itinerary, with its educational and cultural experiences, is not a typical cruise vacation, and feedback from passengers and travel agents about the Fathom's first few trips has been slightly mixed.
In this May 2, 2016 file photo, Carnival's Fathom cruise line ship Adonia arrives from Miami in Havana, Cuba. The Cuban itinerary, with its educational and cultural experiences, is not a typical cruise vacation, and feedback from passengers and travel agents about the Fathom's first few trips has been slightly mixed. AP

It’s full steam ahead to Cuba for two of the world’s major cruise companies.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and Royal Caribbean Cruises, both Miami-based, signed agreements Wednesday with the Cuban government just minutes apart to take passenger ships to the island nation.

All three of Norwegian’s lines — Norwegian Cruise Line, premium line Oceania Cruises and luxury line Regent Seven Seas — and two Royal Caribbean brands — Royal Caribbean International and high-end line Azamara Club Cruises — will sail from the U.S. to Cuba in the near future, the companies said.

Previously, the only U.S.-to-Cuba sailings stopped only in the island nation, aboard Carnival Corp.’s Fathom brand.

Royal Caribbean’s Cuba announcement came first, announcing Florida-to-Cuba cruises but without specific ports, Wednesday afternoon. The trips will be people-to-people exchanges, one of the 12 categories of travel under which Americans can visit Cuba.

“Our guests have expressed real interest in having the opportunity to experience Cuba, and we look forward to bringing them there,” said Richard D. Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, in a statement. “Our discussions with our travel partners indicate that Cuba is a destination that appeals to a new generation of travelers.”

Itineraries will be announced at a later date, Royal Caribbean said. The line has previously said that its 2,270-passenger Empress of the Seas likely would sail to Cuba.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ three lines plan to sail to the island from PortMiami beginning with Oceania in March. The Cuba stops will be part of its broader Caribbean itineraries.

For Norwegian, the Cuba deal comes with a deep history. President and CEO Frank Del Rio left the island in 1961 after the fallout of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Del Rio has been working to ink a deal with Cuba since President Barack Obama reestablished connections with Cuba in December 2014.

But both Norwegian and Royal Caribbean got beat out by Fathom in May, which earned the coveted title of the first American line to sail into Havana Harbor in half a century. Carnival Corp. has announced it will dissolve the Fathom brand this spring but still plans to continue sailing to Cuba in the future.

Still, Wednesday’s announcement was well worth the wait for Del Rio.

“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,” Del Rio said in a statement. “This is truly a dream come true for me and 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 its warm and welcoming residents.”

Del Rio was 6 when his family fled the island. It didn’t return until last year —for a visit, the first in more than five decades.

He has said multiple times that he’s “waiting for the phone to ring” to get the final approval from Cuba for Norwegian cruise ships. Last week, rumors circulated that Norwegian and Royal Caribbean would get the green light soon.

Oceania Cruises’ 1,250-passenger Marina will inaugurate Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ Cuba voyages on March 7 with three Caribbean voyages that include a mix of full-day and overnight stops in Havana. Regent Seven Seas’ 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner will follow in April with two trips that combine an overnight stay in Havana with other Caribbean stops. And in May, Norwegian Cruise Line’s 2,004-passenger Norwegian Sky will set sail on five Caribbean sailings that include overnight stays in Havana.

Full itinerary details for all three lines will be released in the coming weeks.

The experience will be far different from the current U.S.-to-Cuba cruise offering aboard Fathom’s 704-passenger Adonia. The social impact line, which was created to offer the Cuba trips — plus every-other-week “voluntourism” voyages to the Dominican Republic — circumnavigates the island, with stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. But despite considerable demand for the Cuban part of the equation, Carnival said it has opted to phase out the trips on Adonia by June, pending approval for another of the cruise company’s lines to sail there instead.

Norwegian’s Caribbean and Cuba combination trips signify the true realization of Cuba’s potential in the cruise industry, said Mike Driscoll, editor of the trade publication Cruise Week.

“In a way, it’s more exciting than the initial announcement with Fathom,” Driscoll said. “People are going to pay more to see Havana as part of the Caribbean itinerary. This is what people have been waiting for. Fathom wasn’t what people were waiting for.”

Driscoll said that the Fathom product was the entry point into the island but that its aim — with its social-impact bent — was too specific.

In March, Del Rio said the addition of Havana as a possible port in the Caribbean “will shine a bright light over the area,” which has become saturated with cruise lines.

“My guess is there will be a ship in Havana every day of the week,” Del Rio said at the Seatrade Cruise Global conference in March. “The rest of the Caribbean doesn’t have to worry.”

Norwegian and Royal Caribbean will also contend with fewer challenges than Carnival did. Initially, Fathom declined to sell passage to island-born Cuban Americans in accordance with Cuban regulations that prohibited them from returning by sea. Protests and several lawsuits followed, and the line said it would not launch its itineraries until the prohibition was lifted.

Less than two weeks before the ship was scheduled to leave PortMiami for Cuba, the Cuban government reversed its decades-old policy, allowing Cubans to join in on the inaugural voyage.

Fortunately for Del Rio, when his lines sail to Cuba, he will be allowed to be onboard.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH