HAVANA Hundreds of tourists and a handful of emotional Cuban-Americans arrived on the first U.S. cruise ship to sail to Havana in more than 50 years on Monday, spilling onto the cobbled streets of the old city where they were warmly greeted by residents.
It was another first for the two countries since U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a historic rapprochement in December 2014, and comes weeks after Obama's visit to the Caribbean island.
Carnival Corp's Adonia, a small ship carrying 700 passengers, slipped through the channel into Havana Bay in the morning under picture-perfect skies, then docked alongside the colonial quarter recently visited by Obama.
The visitors fanned out on the city's restored streets for walking tours after an arrival ceremony featuring Salsa and Afro-Cuban music, and lots of rum cocktails.
For Cuban-born Anna Garcia, the moment was far more than just a holiday.
"I’m nervous and excited at the same time, I left Cuba 48 years ago, when I was six year old. So just imagine everything that I’m feeling right now,” said Garcia as she stepped off the boat and entered Cuban territory for the first time since childhood.
A Cuban law prohibiting people born in Cuba from entering the Communist-ruled country by sea had almost delayed the cruise but was lifted by local authorities just over a week ago after protests.
Obama has made the dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba a part of his legacy.
The two countries reestablished diplomatic relations a year ago and have signed agreements on issues of common concern such as the environment, postal services and direct flights.
Talks are ongoing over other issues that have kept the next-door neighbors apart, from the return of fugitives to reparations for embargo damages and the return of the Guantanamo Naval Base.
Obama had urged the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the embargo and travel ban, but to no avail, resorting to his executive powers to punch holes in them instead.
Both sides appear determined to make further progress on travel before Obama leaves office.
"Regularly scheduled cruises are the third leg of the land, sea and air efforts by the Obama administration to cement its policy changes, the goal is to make the initiatives big and loud so that they are harder to dislodge,” said John Kavulich, president of the New York-based US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Obama has loosened restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba, though they must still engage in educational and other people-to-people activities and are banned from the beach.
Cruises to Cuba could generate $300 million in revenues to the companies and $88 million to Cuba in the 2016/17 season if all the companies that wish to sail are given the required approvals, Kavulich said.
Carnival's bi-monthly one week cruises to Cuba from Miami cost at least $1,800 per person, excluding Cuban visas, taxes and other fees.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)
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Updated Date: May 03, 2016 00:32 AM