The first US cruise ship in nearly 40 years crossed the Florida Straits from Miami and pulled into Havana Harbor on Monday, restarting commercial travel on waters that served as a stage for a half-century of Cold War hostility.
The gleaming white 704-passenger Adonia appeared on the horizon around 8 p.m. EST. Cubans fishing off the city's seaside boulevard, the Malecon, watched it slowly sail toward the colonial fort at the mouth of Havana Harbor. The ship stopped off the city's cruise terminal and began slowly turning into a docking position, the first US cruise ship in Havana since President Jimmy Carter eliminated virtually all restrictions of US travel to Cuba in the late 1970s.
Travel limits were restored after Carter left office and US cruises to Cuba only become possible again after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente on December 17, 2014.
The Adonia's arrival is the first step toward a future in which thousands of ships a year could cross the Florida Straits, long closed to most US-Cuba traffic due to tensions that once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The straits were blocked by the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis and tens of thousands of Cubans have fled across them to Florida on homemade rafts — with untold thousands dying in the process.
The number of Cubans trying to cross the straits is at its highest point in eight years and cruises and merchant ships regularly rescue rafters from the straits.
The Adonia is one of Carnival's smaller ships — roughly half the size of some larger European vessels that already dock in Havana — but US cruises are expected to bring Cuba tens of millions of dollars in badly needed foreign hard currency if traffic increases as expected. More than a dozen lines have announced plans to run US-Cuba cruises and if all actually begin operations Cuba could earn more than $80 million a year, according to the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council said in a report Monday.
Most of the money goes directly to the Cuban government, council head John Kavulich said. He estimated that the cruise companies pay the government $500,000 per cruise, while passengers spend about $100 person in each city they visit.
Carnival says the Adonia will cruise twice a month from Miami to Havana, where it will start a $1,800 per person seven-day circuit of Cuba with stops in the cities of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. The trips include on-board workshops on Cuban history and culture and tours of the cities that make them qualify as ``people-to-people'' educational travel, avoiding a ban on pure tourism that remains part of US law.
Optional activities for the Adonia's passengers include a walking tour of Old Havana's colonial plazas and a $219 per person trip to the Tropicana cabaret in a classic car.
Before the 1959 Cuban revolution, cruise ships regularly traveled from the US to Cuba, with elegant Caribbean cruises departing from New York and $42 overnight weekend jaunts leaving twice a week from Miami, said Michael L. Grace, an amateur cruise ship historian.
New York cruises featured dressy dinners, movies, dancing and betting on "horse races" in which steward dragged wooden horses around a ballroom track according to rolls of dice that determined how many feet each could move per turn.
The United Fruit company operated once-a-week cruise service out of New Orleans, too, he said.