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  • Writer's pictureJason Leppert

What You Need to Know to Cruise to Cuba

PHOTO: Fathom’s former Adonia in Havana, Cuba. (photo by Jason Leppert)

When cruising to the Caribbean, ordinarily passengers need only consider passports and the like when heading to the foreign ports, but Cuba is a different story. There are indeed several more requirements and steps necessary to ensure smooth passage. So, let’s break them down here.

For the longest time, Cuba was off limits to United States citizens, but the forbidden fruit can now be tasted thanks to former President Obama opening up travel restrictions. Cruise ships are permitted to conveniently sail roundtrip from our domestic shores to the international island with an increasing number of lines doing so. Inter-island options also exist.

The main thing to note about cruising to Havana or any other Cuban ports of call is that outright tourism is technically still not allowed. Travel must fall under twelve authorized categories or a specific license via Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

According to Carnival Cruise Line’s Travel to Cuba Q&A, those dozen are as follows:

Family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities, including people-to-people exchange programs; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.

More often than not, people-to-people cultural exchanges are what cruise passengers fall under, but one certification form per guest must be filled out exactly for travel as it is planned to self-certify. For example, shore excursions available from the cruise lines are generally considered OFAC-compliant.

A passport book is also required for cruises to Cuba according to Norwegian Cruise Line’s Cruising to Cuba information. A passport card will not suffice. Additionally, a visa, or “tourist card,” is specifically needed by the Cuban government at an additional cost for visitors not born in Cuba. Norwegian charges $75 for processing and procurement or it can be obtained on your own.

Upon arrival in Cuba, customs must be cleared for each passenger prior to being allowed outside the terminal area. Officials verify all individual passports and visas here, as well as screen passengers at an airport-style security checkpoint with baggage X-ray machines and metal detectors to pass through. Local nurses also take your temperature with forehead thermometers to ensure fever-free entry. Otherwise, sick passengers are required to stay onboard.

The entire process can take some time but moves relatively quickly. Besides, overnight calls in Havana help make up for any lost moments.

Another pier-side consideration is currency exchange. Cuba does not yet widely accept credit cards nor US dollars, so it’s best to convert some local money to pay for any extra dining or shopping opportunities. Just be sure to change any remainder back at your final Cuban port of call prior to leaving. There are other exchange locations nearby within Havana if the terminal facility is too busy.

Currently under the Trump administration, Cuban cruise travel remains open but is subject to more intense scrutiny. It’s best to review all the requirements specific to each cruise line and departure to be sure that passengers are compliant with any updated regulations.

There is definitely more paperwork involved with traveling to Cuba, but as someone who has now cruised there twice can attest, any labors are far worth the opportunity to visit the newly accessible cruise destination, discover its culture and interact with its people.

This post first appeared on TravelPulse.

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