While the president's action eased some restrictions - it was no longer necessary to apply for individual visas - there were still limits on who could go and under what circumstances.
Cruising to Cuba has been possible for years - but only on ships owned by non-American companies like Costa (before it was acquired by Carnival Corp. & plc).
During this winter season, the renovated MSC Opera is homeporting in Havana and sailing 16 Caribbean cruises. During the ship's two-and-a-half-day stay in Havana, guests can explore the city's old center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and stroll the famous Malecón
Several lines offer Havana as a port stop. Thomson has two itineraries that include two days in Havana; they sail from Montego Bay, aboard the 1,506-passenger Thomson Dream. Fred Olsen's 14-day Caribbean Cruise in early January only has one day in Cuba's capital. Star Clippers' 7-day cruise (through February 2016) aboard the 170-passenger Star Flyer sails roundtrip from the UNESCO World Heritage town of Cienfuegos and calls at Cayo Blanco, Casilda (Trinidad), Cayman Brac, George Town (Grand Cayman), Cayo Largo and Cayo Rico (a diving paradise, part of the Canarreos Archipelago).
Traveling roundtrip out of London, Noble Caledonia's 100-passenger MS Serenissima has a Feb. 17th 12-night cruise that spends two days in Havana and calls at Maria La Gorda, Isla de Juventud (an island 50 miles off Cuba's south coast), Cienfuegos, Casilda (for Trinidad), Santiago de Cuba, then sails to Jamaica and the Caymans. (The ship also sails a number of longer itineraries, through March 2017, that include Havana.)
Cuba Cruise's Celestyal Cristal has offered seasonal weekly sailings from Montego Bay (and Havana) since 2013; the schedule currently runs through April 11th, 2016. The ship has recently been refurbished, adding 43 new balconies and making extensive upgrades. The itinerary can include visits to as many as six UNESCO world heritage sites and four National Parks & Preserves. New this year is a port stop in Maria La Gorda, in addition to an overnight in Havana and a call at Santiago de Cuba.
As cruises that qualify under the educational and nonprofit "people to people" cultural exchange category are now allowed by the U.S. government, Americans now have additional options. Beginning in February, Haimark, in conjunction with Florida-based United Caribbean Lines, will offer 15 10-day people-to people voyages, roundtrip from Miami, aboard the 210-passenger MS Saint Laurent.
Cruises like these allow guests to see lesser-known port cities, to visit six of the island's nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites and to engage with Cuba's artists, musicians, historians and artisans.
International Expeditions out of Miami offers similar people-to-people 10-day cruises, roundtrip from Miami, aboard the 48-passenger Panorama or 46-passenger Panorama 2. Highlights of the itinerary have guests visiting pottery workshops and artists' studios, taking dance lessons, learning about the island's sports and enjoying choir and theater performances.
Starting in March and through December 2017, Pearl Seas Cruises offers 11-day cultural cruises aboard the new 210-passenger Pearl Mist. Here, too, passengers will engage with local artists and tradespeople, visit museums and UNESCO World Heritage Sites and learn about the island's history and traditions.
In the first - and historic - move by a mainstream American cruise line, Carnival Corp. will send its "social impact" line, fathom, to Cuba, from May 2016 through October 2nd, roundtrip from Miami. The 704-passenger Adonia will visit three ports: Havana, the country's capital, the historic towns of Cienfuegos/Trinidad, and Cuba's second largest city, Santiago de Cuba.
Fathom guests will be served Cuban-inspired meals (including vegetarian options) onboard and interact, one-on-one with students, health workers, small business owners and artists. Itineraries might include a visit to an organic farm, a meal at a home-based restaurant, an English workshop at a primary school - all fulfilling the people-to-people guidelines.
Given the level of interest in cruising to Cuba, the question often asked is: Will other American cruise lines follow Carnival's lead and come up with similar "social impact" cruises?
The answer is "maybe." But, if the travel embargo is lifted, cruise lines could move quickly to offer a variety of options beyond the "people-to-people" guidelines. Docking infrastructure already exists in Havana and given Cuba's proximity to Miami and ports in the Gulf of Mexico, the capital city could easily be included on many Caribbean itineraries.