The first cruise ship to sail to Cuba from the United States in nearly 40 years reached the port of Havana on Monday morning.
The Cuban capital is the first stop of the 700-passenger ship Adonia Fathom, part of the Carnival Cruise Line, which sailed Sunday from Miami on a historic journey that marks another milestone in the thawing of relations between the two countries .
Other cruise lines, including Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises, are also in talks with Cuba to start sailing there soon.
The cruise is part of a new opening for U.S. visitors to the communist-run island limited to cultural, sports, religious or educational travel. Traditonal beach tourism in Cuba is still banned for U.S. citizens under a five-decades-old economic embargo.
The cruise operations could be a big boost to Cuba's booming travel sector. Since Cuba and the United States announces plans to normalize relations in December 2014, about 16 companies (U.S. and non-U.S.) have announced intentions to operate Cuba-focused itineraries, according to John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
If other companies follow Carnival's lead, there could be as many as 150 cruise ship sailings over the next year, carrying more than 100,000 people, worth $300 million in gross revenues for the companies, and $88 million for Cuba, he added.
The regularly-scheduled Cuba cruises are part of the Obama Administration's effort "to cement its regulatory policy changes," said Kavulich. "The goal is to make the initiatives big and loud so that they are harder to dislodge," by the next U.S. government, he added.
"Obama has used visitors as an army, airlines as an air force, cruise ships as a navy and, to a lesser extent thus far, companies as marines to create a beachhead in the Republic of Cuba that can't be pulled or pushed off the island- either by political forces in the United States or in the Republic of Cuba. The armada is digging in; not quite with a permanent foundation, but closing in....," he said.
The Adonia's seven-day itinerary also includes the coastal cities of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
The cruise was mired in controversy for several weeks due to an old Cuban law which banned Cuban-Americans from traveling to the island by sea, a legacy of past attacks launched from Florida by militant exile groups.
Cuba scrapped the law last month, allowing the cruise to go ahead, though too late for most Cuban Americans to book the maiden voyage.
According to Carnival, a small group of Cuban-Americans are aboard, among them Arnaldo Perez, a Carnival attorney who was chosen to be the first to step ashore in Havana.