Today Carnival, the world’s largest cruise company, announced that it has been granted approval by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Commerce to offer cruises to Cuba.

Assuming that the Cuban government approves, Carnival intends to begin operating week-long Cuba voyages in May 2016 aboard the 710-passenger MV Adonia via its newly launched fathom (yes, with a trendy lower-case ‘f’) cruise brand.

Carnival thus becomes the first U.S. cruise company to be granted permission to sail regular cruises to Cuba since the embargo was put in place in 1961.

On June 4, 2015, Carnival announced the launch of fathom as the first cruise line dedicated to “social-impact travel” (similar to Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program).

The initial cruise will visit the Dominican RepublicThe vessel will depart Port Miami in April 2016 for Amber Cove, Carnival Corporation’s newly constructed port near Puerto Plata, in the DR. Amber Cove will serve as the vessel’s home base.

Carnival says it expects to draw 37,000 socially-conscious non-cruise-type passengers—mostly “purpose-driven millennials”—annually to fathom’s cruises.

“It’s so different that we don’t call it a ‘cruise’,” says Tara Vargas Russell, fathom’s newly-appointed president (and founder and CEO of Create Common Good, a nonprofit social venture that uses food to change lives). “It’s a social impact travel experience that happens at sea on a small re-purposed ship.”

Cuba-focused programs will be launched the following month.

“Carnival Corporation intends to operate fathom travel itineraries directly to Cuba for the purpose of providing cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens,” says a company press release, which I was given privileged access to last night. “Fathom is designed as a purpose-driven brand to enrich the lives of its travelers and in the case of the Dominican Republic, drive sustainable social impact on a significant scale.”

Social impact travel?

Apparently, in the DR, it includes shore-based educational, environmental, and economic improvement projects, such as building clay water filters, helping a women’s co-op pick cacao plants, and helping teach conversational English to school children around Puerto Plata.

However, Carnival kept secret until now what clearly seems to me like the real reason for the launch of fathom…

Cuba!

At the June 4 fathom launch, Arnold Donald, President and CEO of Carnival Corporation, dismissed questions about going to Cuba, which he called a “very interesting thought.” Instead, he claimed that the cruises would have a “social mission” with a focus on the DR.

While that may be true of the April inaugural cruise, there’s no doubt that the big draw will be Cuba. That’s where the huge untapped demand lies. (I simply can’t see Carnival being able to fill Adonia’s staterooms on a weekly basis for purely “social impact” travel, however noble the cause. I hope I’m wrong. Social impact program on this scale would make a huge difference to the disadvantaged communities around Puerto Plata, with each group of travelers building on the impact of the ones who came before.)

Carnival is clearly aiming for the ‘Average Joe’ cruiser keen to visit a destination that’s been off-limits to cruise ships, and most U.S. travelers, for six decades.

(Under U.S. law, even foreign vessels that visit Cuba without U.S. Treasury License approval may not berth in the USA, including Puerto Rico, for 180 days thereafter. That’s kept a majority of foreign registered vessels away from Cuba. However, several U.S. cruise ships have been given licenses in past years by the Treasury Dept. and Commerce Dept. for “People-to-People” or other educational programs. This includes the Semester at Sea’s SS Universe Explorer.)

The company is taking advantage of relaxed regulations regarding travel to Cuba since January, 2015 (see my blog post: “President Obama Eases up on Travel Restrictions to Cuba”).

“We are excited about receiving U.S. approval as the very important first step to ultimately take travelers to Cuba under the existing twelve criteria for authorized travel,” says Donald, who cannily also kept mum about plans for Cuba during a March 20, 2015, CNN interview with Richard Quest.

Those twelve categories include academics and students, journalism, religious and humanitarian travel, and family visits. That’s pretty restrictive! Too restrictive, in fact, to fill those staterooms.

Not least, sorry to say, recreational travel and tourism are still not allowed by Uncle Sam. Another reason not to call this a “cruise,” with its intonations of days spent lazing by the pool with cocktails in hand. And, no… Adonia will NOT have a casino. (Adonia was clearly chosen for its small size and ability to berth in Havana, whose harbor tunnel precludes the entry of mega cruise ships.)

Now the good news…

Every U.S. citizen is eligible to travel to Cuba under the “people-to-people educational exchange” category, which is clearly what Carnival’s fathom intends to use as the basis for its Cuba itineraries.

That means you can expect a cruise experience that focuses shore visits on cultural interactions that fulfill U.S. regulations regarding people-to-people travel, such as music, dance, and other culturally uplifting and fascinating engagements. As the website, which went live this morning, states: “The true value of your fathom voyage to Cuba will be to connect to the heritage of Cuba though an immersive program that encourages cultural, artistic, faith-based, and humanitarian exchanges between American and Cuban citizens.”

My experience leading P2P Cuba tours for National Geographic Expeditions suggests that Carnival may well have understood that travelers who choose to visit Cuba are, on the whole, pre-selected. They have a propensity to be open-minded, socially conscious, non-judgmental and empathetic.

So I say: Good luck to Tara Russell and fathom.

Prices for the seven-day voyages are slated to start at $2,990 per person, excluding on-the-ground cultural immersion activities.

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Christopher P Baker

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Christopher P. Baker, one of the world's most multi-talented and success travel writers and photographers is considered the foremost authority on Cuba travel and culture. Winner of the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 as 'Travel Journalist of the Year,' he has authored more than 30 books, leads tours for National Geographic Expeditions and other companies, and is a Getty Images and National Geographic contributing photographer.