A year from now, Carnival Corporation’s presence in Cuba will look completely different than it does today — if Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Carnival Corp. and Rosamaria Caballero, Senior Director of Cuba Product for Fathom, have anything to say about it.
For one, Carnival Corp. expects ships from some of its other brands to be visiting at least one, if not more, Cuban ports on either Cuba-specific or broader Caribbean itineraries. Currently, Fathom, a Carnival Corp. brand, is the only American cruise line with permission to sail Cuba cruises out of the United States. Its first sailing departed Miami on May 1. But the Fathom program will undergo changes as well, as it intends to expand its shore excursion program, along with its onboard offerings, to enable passengers to go deeper into Cuban culture.
According to Donald, Carnival Corp. has put in requests to the Cuban government for port visits to several Cuban cities for all of its North American brands including Seabourn, Princess, Holland America and Carnival Cruise Line. "We have requests in through 2018," he told Cruise Critic.
But he added he believes Cuba is going to take its time when it comes to handing out permissions. "I think, I don’t know but I think they’re going to pace things and they’re going to think things through." Donald says he doesn’t expect to see any more U.S.-based ships visiting Cuba until late fall, and more likely early 2017.
As for the company’s investment in Cuba, Donald said Carnival is up for whatever Cuba wants, whether that means investing in building a port or simply "plugging in" and just visiting ports. "We’ll offer them suggestions, but in the end they’ll do what they want."
"This is version 1.0," said Rosamaria Caballero, who is responsible for Fathom’s onshore programming in Cuba. She told a small group of reporters on Fathom’s first Cuba sailing that things did not go as smoothly as the cruise line had hoped. Caballero joined Fathom in January and the line did not get approval from Cuba to sail to the island until March, giving her a very short window to start planning.
Complaints from passengers ranged from too much time on the bus to walking tours that were too long to excessive waits in the cruise terminal to not enough person to person interaction. Fathom’s Cuba program is legally supposed to follow the people-to-people cultural guidelines that govern American travel in the country.
"Now, we’re here. We know what it’s like."
One of Caballero’s first goals is to expand the shore excursion program, which currently only offers one included option in both Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, and two included options in Havana (one on Monday and the second on Tuesday). The line also has three extra-cost evening options in Havana.
"Maybe in a month from now, we’ll have two choices on Monday or four choices on Tuesday."
The choices would be based more on personal interests like Jewish history, classic cars, Cuban music or food and would be capacity controlled. Passengers would also be able to mix and match between the line’s included people-to-people tours and self-certification – meaning passengers could do the line’s four hour walking tour in the morning and then spend four hours on their own in the afternoon visiting shops and restaurants and talking to locals. (Under the current people to people requirements, visitors to Cuba must spend a minimum of eight hours a day – if the ship is in port that long – doing cultural exchange activities.) In a previous media session, Tara Russel, Fathom’s president, indicated these additional tours would carry a surcharge.
Another tweak Caballero is already looking into is offering more sedentary options for cruisers who have difficulty walking. Cuba-specific programming offered onboard while the ship is at sea does not count toward the people-to-people requirements, but Caballero is looking into whether onboard programming while the ship is docked in Cuba would fit. If so, Fathom could bring a Cuban chef or art historian onboard to give a lecture so that those who can’t do a full day of touring in the heat and humidity of a Cuban day, can participate. (Many travelers on the line’s first Cuba cruise only got off twice because they discovered too much walking was expected and they would not be able to leave the tours part of the way through.)
Caballero has also already begun communicating with Havanatur, the government-owned tour company that provides the on-ground experience for Fathom passengers to get more people-to-people activities included. On most tours, cultural interaction was limited to time spent with the local guides and a few cultural performances.
Changes are already in place for Fathom’s second visit to Cuba on May 15, including having all money exchange booths in the Havana cruise terminal open (instead of just five or six of 14 booths), as well as extending their hours. The introductory "what to expect in Cuba" session will also be offered at least twice before arriving in Cuba, instead of just once on Sunday night.
Tara Russell and Arnold Donald also have additional plans for Fathom in Cuba, including possibly switching up the itineraries from sailing to sailing so that one option might have more time in Havana, while a second offers more time in Cienfuegos and Santiago, or even swap out one of the two smaller ports for a different city.
Donald said he also expects to see the onboard experience for Fathom’s Cuba trips change. On the first sailing, onboard programming included a lot of the personal development sessions created with voluntourism program of Fathom’s Dominican Republic sailings in mind. Donald said he believes the Cuba trips will "take a hard turn" to be more Cuban in the future.
There’s a lot more for Fathom to do in Cuba, Caballero said. "There will be a version 1.1, a 1.2 and so on."