There's been a sizeable chunk of the Caribbean missing from cruise itineraries for a long time. Cuba, the region's largest island, has been more or less closed to cruise ships due to unrest between it and the United States. Even now, US citizens are technically banned from travelling to Cuba for recreational purposes, although the restriction is not strongly enforced and is beginning to loosen up with ferry services between the nations being granted licenses.
The good news is, there are no such bans in place for the rest of the world if we want to visit the beautiful Cuba, and even for US citizens there are ways of getting around the travel restrictions. There has been immense interest from cruise lovers in seeing Cuba before it becomes a hugely commercial tourist destination, and the market is beginning to open up.
MSC Cruises to homeport in Havana
MSC Cruises, a Europe-based company, is not subject to the same restrictions as US-based cruise lines. They recently announced that they will homeport the MSC Opera in Havana for the 2015-2016 winter season, making them the first major cruise line to cruise from there - in fact, the first major line to cruise there at all, as the companies who currently visit the island are small-ship lines like Fred Olsen and Saga Cruises.
The MSC Opera, a 2,150-passenger elegant European-style ship, will sail from Genoa in Italy to Havana in December 2015 and base herself there for the next few months with regular departures on week-long itineraries taking in Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Mexico. The cruises also spend two days in Havana, so passengers can explore the sights and sounds of this fantastic city with the ship as a home base.
Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises, said of the new destination, "The move to Cuba attests to our steadfast commitment to offer our experienced guests and holiday-makers the best and most sought-after destinations as they become accessible - thus further enhancing our global offering while providing travellers best-in-class experiences and service."
Fathom social impact travel brand skirts regulations
Fathom, Carnival Corporation's newest brand has been granted US approval to take its voluntourism cruises to Cuba. Travel restrictions are waived for those engaging in support or humanitarian activities aimed at helping the Cuban people, and that's exactly what fathom intends to do; its holidays combine tourism with volunteer and humanitarian activities.
Cuba will provide an alternate itinerary to the line's first "impact destination" of the Dominican Republic. "We're incredibly excited and humbled by this potential opportunity to help travelers experience the amazing beauty and culture of Cuba, while being able to provide educational and cultural exchange activities that will benefit both the traveler and the Cuban people" Tara Russell, the president of fathom, said about the planned Cuban itineraries.
But that's too far away! Where are the exciting new destinations Down Under?
Australian cruisers with no plans to travel to the Caribbean aren't missing out on fun new destinations. Timor Leste has also been largely inaccessible to tourists due to political unrest in past years, and has just recently opened up its capital, Dili, to visits by cruise ships.
P&O's Pacific Jewel made history as the first cruise ship to visit Dili in June, and the line has plans to return in 2016. Timor Leste, perhaps more commonly known as East Timor, is a young nation with plenty to offer the intrepid cruiser - and it's perfect for anyone looking to experience a destination relatively untouched by rampant commercial tourism.
There are also some hot new domestic destinations being offered by P&O and Carnival in 2015 and 2016 with the release of their new programs. One of these is Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast, where passengers can experience some great onshore excursions including the Australia Zoo, swimming with humpback whales and 4WDing. Eden in New South Wales is another, known for its Killer Whale Museum and seafood restaurants. Mornington Peninsula in Victoria also features on some new itineraries, close by Melbourne and hopping with foodie highlights like cellar doors and local markets.
With cruising on the up-and-up around these parts, the best is yet to come. Keep an eye out for more new ports to add to the huge range of South Pacific cruises in the coming years!