First US-to-Cuba cruise ship in decades docks in HavanaMonday, May 02, 2016
HAVANA, Cuba (AFP) — The first US cruise ship to travel to Cuba in half a century docked in Havana Monday, marking a new milestone in the rapprochement between the old Cold War foes.
A crowd of onlookers waved Cuban and American flags and filmed with their cell phones as the Adonia, a Carnival cruise liner, sailed into port in Havana after setting off Sunday from Miami, the heart of the Cuban diaspora in the United States.
The ship had 700 passengers on board, some of them Cuban-Americans returning to the communist island for the first time in decades.
Yaney Cajigal, a 32-year-old dancer, could barely contain her excitement as she waited for her niece to disembark.
"This is incredible for me, this is very exciting," she told AFP.
"We're welcoming them with the flags of Cuba and the United States so everything will be unity, peace and tranquility."
The voyage is the first of what Carnival says will become week-long cruises to Cuba twice a month, with the goal of promoting cultural exchange between the two countries following a warming of ties that began in December 2014 and led to the restoration of full diplomatic relations last year.
The "cultural exchange" aspect is key, since ordinary tourism to Cuba is still banned under a US trade embargo, which remains in force despite the diplomatic thaw.
For the time being, Americans can travel to Cuba only for cultural, academic, sports-related or religious events.
Carnival is the first cruise line company to win permission from both governments to offer trips, which ended after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
The Adonia has scheduled cultural activities in its ports of call in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, including meetings with artists, musicians and business owners, as well as dance classes and guided tours.
The cruise "offers a truly historic opportunity for travel to Cuba: a chance to help build new bridges to a rich and vibrant culture that, until now, most US travelers have only seen in photographs," the cruise ship's web page says.
Uncertainty over whether the cruise would take place cleared up only last week, when Cuban President Raul Castro's government lifted restrictions for seaborne visits of Cubans to and from the United States, opening a door for Cuban-Americans born on the island to board the ships.
Carnival initially refused to accept reservations from Cuban-born customers because of restrictions first imposed when Havana feared landings by anti-Castro militants.
The cruise line's policy prompted charges of discrimination amid a firestorm of criticism.
Carnival, the world's leading tour ship operator, eventually relented and began allowing reservations from Cuban-born customers. But its conditions to start the visits were for Cuba to allow its citizens to sail freely.
Cuba ultimately backed down after intense negotiations as part of the normalization process, which culminated in President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba in March.
One of the Cuban-born passengers is Isabel Buznego, 61, who left the island when she was five and was returning for the first time.
"My dad wanted to come because he had never been able to come, but he passed away," she said. "So I'm coming in his name. That is why I have so many different emotions, but I am mostly happy."
Another passenger, Regina Patterson, 58, from Delaware, said she wanted to take the cruise because it was historic.
"And it is a place I always wanted to visit," she said. "I want to see how they live, the music, what they eat, and shopping, shopping, shopping!"
The cost of a ticket on the cruise ranges from $1,800 to $7,000 per person.
Regular flights from the United States to Cuba are expected to begin later this year.
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