MIAMI – Carnival Corp. has won U.S. approval to operate cruises to Cuba and plans to start taking travelers there in May, joining a growing list of maritime companies hoping to profit from a thaw in relations between Washington and Havana.
The United States and Cuba have been working for months to improve relations after more than five decades of animosity that had led to a trade embargo against the communist-led country.
The countries formally agreed last week to restore diplomatic relations on July 20.
Miami-based Carnival, the world’s largest cruise operator, said it was still in talks with Cuba for approval to start humanitarian and culturally themed visits there.
Americans are still banned from going to Cuba as tourists but are allowed to go there for a dozen approved motives such as visiting family or participating in academic, professional, religious or educational programs.
Carnival is the first major U.S.-based cruise ship company to venture into Cuban waters. Miami-based cruise lines including Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., have for years expressed reservations about upsetting the city’s large Cuban-American exile population, which has traditionally opposed doing business with Cuba.
“The reaction to the changes in Cuba policy here has been much more muted than expected and the cruise lines are clearly reading that,” said Antonio Zamora, a Cuban-born Miami lawyer and critic of the embargo.
In May the U.S. Treasury Department approved several licenses for passenger ferry services between the United States and Cuba.
Ferry services between Cuba and the United States were cut off in the early 1960s, following the Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Airlines have also moved to take advantage of the thaw, with JetBlue Airways Corp. starting direct charter flights between New York and Havana on Friday. Other U.S. airlines, many of which have operated charter flights to Cuba for years, have also said they would look into ways to increase service there.
Carnival said the cruises had received approvals from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Commerce and would be launched in May under its new “fathom” brand, set up last month to run cruises with humanitarian and cultural themes to the Dominican Republic.
Carnival will use the 710-passenger vessel, the MV Adonia, for its Cuba cruises, on the small side for the company, whose ships typically carry 2,000 to 3,000 people.
Carnival said the cruises would focus on education, the environment and economic development and feature Spanish lessons and workshops on the country’s heritage. There will be no casinos or stage shows.
The Cuba cruises will start at $2,990 per person excluding taxes and other fees. They will be more expensive than typical regional cruises because of visa costs, paperwork, and the fact that the U.S. rules require passengers on cruises to Cuba to spend at least 8 hours a day on the ground and participating in academic, professional, religious or educational programs.
Carnival shares were up 0.39 percent at $49.75 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.