PHOTO: The Carnival Paradise will be the largest capacity cruise ship in history to sail from the U.S. to Havana in June 2017. (Photo via Flickr/Jared)
Carnival Corporation announced Tuesday that Cuba has granted its namesake Carnival Cruise Line brand approval to begin sailing to the Caribbean island nation as soon as June 2017.
Cuba's capital city of Havana will be added to select itineraries sailing out of Tampa aboard the Carnival Paradise starting this summer. Carnival said the Carnival Paradise will become the largest capacity cruise ship in history to sail from the U.S. to Havana.
The daytime and overnight stops in Havana will be featured on at least a dozen four-day and five-day sailings beginning June 29. The four-day cruises are scheduled to depart June 29, July 13, August 24, September 7 and 21, October 5 and 19, 2017 and May 3, 2018. It's a weird combination of sailings, but it is the window that was approved by the Cuban government and Carnival is just excited to further the relationship, said Carnival senior vice president of itinerary planning Terry Thornton.
"I've been with the company for 30 years, and this is easily the most exciting announcement I've ever seen made with our cruise line," he said.
The five-day voyages will depart August 14 and 28, September 25 and October 9, 2017, and will include an additional stop in either Cozumel or Key West.
Once in Havana, the cruise line will offer a variety of shore excursion experiences to guests. Thornton said the ship will dock right outside the Old Havana heart of the city, making walking tours to see the artwork, classic cars, architecture, shopping and dining an easy trip close to the ship.
For those more adventurous, rides in some of Havana's classic cars and a day trip to some of Ernest Hemingway's famed hangouts outside of Havana will be offered.
"With the overnight, we're excited that cruisers will be able to truly experience Havana nightlife. It's a must when you see a destination as lively as Havana," said Thornton, who hopes the Cuba destination will attract first-time cruisers who want a unique way to see Havana.
Meanwhile, aboard the Carnival Paradise highlights include a 12,000 square-foot health and wellness facility, an adults-only retreat, four swimming pools and a 115-foot-long water slide.
"The opportunity to visit Havana, combined with the fun, relaxed ambiance and wide variety of amenities and features offered on Carnival Paradise, will make for a truly one-of-a-kind vacation experience," Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy said in a statement.
READ MORE: Norwegian Cruise Line Extends Cuban Cruises, Others Look Ahead
In his own statement, Carnival Corporation CEO Arnold Donald said that the company's historic sailings to Cuba with its Fathom brand will give it a leg up on providing a top-notch view of Havana.
"Our first-hand expertise gained from being the first to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in decades, and carrying more U.S. passengers than any other cruise company over the past year, will be invaluable in helping our Carnival brand make sure its guests have a great vacation experience to what is becoming one of the Caribbean's most desired destinations," Donald said.
"As we expand cruise vacations to Cuba in the second half of this year, we are also optimistic we will be granted approval by Cuba for additional Carnival Corporation brands. The Caribbean is already the world's most popular region for cruising, and we are excited about expanding our itineraries across several of our brands to include Cuba."
Carnival is currently accepting bookings for the upcoming 2017 cruises featuring stops in Havana. Travelers can make reservations through their travel agent or by calling 1-800-CARNIVAL.
"We're excited to give our travel agent partners this exciting option," Thornton said. "We've already heard from so many that this will be an amazing addition in their ability to connect with travelers."
Later Tuesday, the voyages will be bookable on Carnival.com.
Tuesday's announcement comes less than a year after Carnival's historic May 2016 sailing to Cuba aboard its Fathom brand. Both Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have since been approved to travel to Cuba. Norwegian will use its Norwegian Sky while Royal Caribbean will send the Empress of the Seas. The 2,052-passenger Paradise, which first sailed in 1998 and is the newest of Carnival's eight Fantasy Class ships, is at the top end of the size of ship the Havana port can currently handle.
"The lessons we took from the Fathom sailings, it was invaluable and I guarantee you it will make us the most prepared cruise line in providing a seamless port of call for our passengers," Thornton said.
The cruise line's newest ship, the Vista, has a Cuban-themed cabin section and lounge. Thornton said the company has no plans to retrofit the Paradise with those features, but that the ship will be filled with elements of Cuban culture and cuisine.
Editor-in-chief Tim Wood contributed to this report.