MIAMI • The first US cruise ship to arrive in Cuba in decades received a warm welcome from Havana residents who gathered at the wharf in the colonial old city as hundreds of Americans waved from the decks of the vessel.
It was another first for the two countries since US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a historic rapprochement in December 2014, and comes weeks after Mr Obama's visit to the Caribbean island.
Carnival Corp's Adonia, a small ship with 700 passengers on board, slipped into Havana Bay yesterday morning under picture-perfect skies, then docked at the colonial old town recently visited by Mr Obama.
Among the passengers was Ms Isabel Buznego, 61, who left Cuba when she was five and was returning for the first time.
"My dad wanted to come because he had never been able to, but he passed away," she said. "So I'm coming in his name. That is why I have so many different emotions, but I am mostly happy."
A Cuban law prohibiting nationals from entering the country by sea had almost delayed the cruise but was lifted by local authorities just over a week ago.
Mr Obama has made the dramatic shift in US policy towards Cuba a part of his legacy.
The two countries re-established diplomatic relations a year ago and have signed agreements on issues such as the environment, postal services and direct flights.
Talks are ongoing over other issues that have kept the next-door neighbours apart, from the return of fugitives to reparations for embargo damages and the return of the Guantanamo Naval Base.
Both sides appear determined to make further progress on travel before Mr 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 Mr John Kavulich, president of the New York-based US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
The Adonia has scheduled cultural activities in its ports of call in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, including meetings with artists, musicians and business owners, as well as dance classes and guided tours.
The cost of a ticket on the cruise ranges from US$1,800 (S$2,416) to US$7,000 per person.
Regular flights from the US to Cuba are expected to begin later this year.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE