When President Barack Obama normalized relations with Cuba and loosened restrictions for travelers on March 21, just two days later, cruise giant Carnival was quick to announce the launch of the first cruises from the United States to Cuba in more than 50 years.
The cruises, now on sale, will operate as bi-weekly seven-day trips out of Miami on Carnival’s social impact-focused Fathom brand on their 704-passenger Adonia, the first which will depart on May 1.
Lisa Lee, 18-year travel consultant with Avenue Travel Group, American Express in Bedminster, said that her office has had about 10 people already express interest in booking a Carnival cruise to Cuba. Plus, escorted tours to Cuba have been “selling out like you would not believe.”
“Being that Cuba is so close, it’s not that long of a cruise,” said Lee. “Plus, travelers can experience this forbidden Cuban culture that they have never explored.”
In terms of safety, Lee said that she wouldn’t have any more hesitation for clients traveling to Cuba than she would if they were traveling to any other destination.
“In today’s world, you need to be careful anywhere you go,” she said. “Plus, many Cubans live in the United States, so the culture isn’t completely removed and the country is similar to Mexico and South American countries.”
Lee said that Cuba is now much more appealing to the average traveler because Carnival is an American-owned brand and cruising allows tourists a “one-stop shop.”
However, by no means is the cruise cheap. Fares start at $1,800 per person — excluding Cuban visas, taxes, fees and port expenses and including all onboard meals, onboard experiences and several on-the-ground activities — which Lee said is a bit of a high price, although not uncommon.
Diane Levitz, a Sea Girt resident who has been on 63 cruises, 10 of which were Carnival, said that she would love to go on a cruise to Cuba, even though she also finds the fares to be pricey compared to other seven-day trips offered. She said that she always books a room with a balcony, and on Carnival’s Cuban cruise, that fare ranges from $3,150 to $4,147. The room accommodates two people, and can accommodate up to two more in select rooms with cots.
However, that doesn’t make a Cuban cruise out of the question for her. She is considering going on one in the near future. That she could visit Cuba on a Carnival cruise makes the decision easier for her, though.
“I like to eat on a ship that I’m familiar with. Plus, I have heard from several friends who visited Cuba on tours that they have gotten sick from the local food,” said Levitz. “Also, there are a limited number of hotels in Cuba. I would feel much more secure simply cruising with a familiar cruise line such as Carnival.”
Arlene Kaplan of the Gillette section of Long Hill visited Cuba on an International Expeditions tour in February for eight days with 38 other travelers. Although she said she enjoyed her time there tremendously and would recommend a visit for the average tourist, Kaplan said that she was surprised by the degree of poverty in the area and that tourists can expect to see the same degree in Cuba that they see on many other Caribbean islands.
Kaplan said that she noticed many half-finished buildings and abandoned supplies, as well as evidence of hunger because food is rationed in Cuba and Cubans only receive 10 pounds of rice a month.
“Visitors need to keep in mind that everything is controlled by the government — even our tour guide was a government employee,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to wander off by ourselves — when we were on land, we were in buses going from Point A to Point B.”
Kaplan said that despite the government control, she encountered no animosity during the trip, and she found that the Cubans she met couldn’t wait for Americans to visit.
“I think that they think the Americans will open everything up for them,” she said. “That may happen, but not right away.”
Levitz, Kaplan and Lee believe that Carnival’s new cruise offerings are positive for travelers.
“I am very old. I remember when it all fell apart,” Levitz said. “Fifty years have accomplished nothing. We need to get over it.”