News and Facts about Cuba

Are new cruises to Cuba just too different?

Are new cruises to Cuba just too different?
By Beth J. Harpaz
AP Editor
Published: Friday, June 10, 2016 at 2:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 9, 2016 at 7:06 p.m.

Miami-based Carnival Corp.’s new Fathom brand cruises to Cuba and the
Dominican Republic, launched in May, appear to be experiencing growing

Both offerings are different than anything else in the industry: The
Cuba trips are the first U.S. cruises to the island nation in 40 years,
and initially generated tremendous excitement. But travelers are giving
them mixed reviews, complaining of confusion over how the tours are

The cruises to the Dominican Republic, meanwhile, which invite
passengers to volunteer on projects like reforestation and teaching
English, are proving to be a hard sell and have been steeply discounted,
with the initial $1,540 ticket price cut to as low as $249.

“People don’t know why they would want go and pay to work somewhere,”
said travel agent Gloria Hanson. “People want a vacation.”

Hanson sailed Fathom’s other itinerary to Havana in May and said that
while it was a fascinating experience, that trip was different from
standard cruises too.

“This cruise is not for everybody,” she said. “It’s a tiring cruise.
You’re walking, walking, walking. You’re not coming back to the ship to
have drinks and party. It’s not that kind of a cruise.”

Even Fathom’s ship, Adonia, is different from the glitzy megaships that
have become standard in the U.S. cruise industry. Adonia is smaller than
many ships, carrying just over 700 passengers. It also has no casino and
doesn’t offer the comedy clubs and Broadway-style productions that
cruise passengers have come to expect.

Tara Russell, who heads the Fathom brand and has been on several of the
cruises, says she’s not worried.

“We are pioneering two products the world has never seen,” said Russell
in an interview.

She said bookings have increased daily, many passengers have booked
second trips, and the company is expanding marketing efforts, especially
for the voluntourism trips, by reaching out to faith-based and alumni

But travel agents say Fathom’s reception has been lukewarm.

“Fathom seems to be having a slow start and the agent members of
CruiseCompete are not 100 percent certain the ship will ever sell out,”
said Heidi Allison-Shane, editor-at-large for She
said CruiseCompete has had a number of requests for information about
Fathom, “but very few bookings.”

Hanson said passengers to Cuba were confused about how the tours are
organized. Many signed up for excursions organized by the ship, not
realizing they could have created their own itineraries without
violating U.S. rules that limit Americans visiting Cuba to certain types
of activities like cultural exchanges.

“I was under the impression you had to do everything with the cruise
line,” Hanson said. “That part was very confusing.”

In addition, Fathom randomly assigned passengers to visit museums,
historic sites or performance venues without giving them a choice. And
while Hanson raved about a meal she had in an excellent private
in Cuba, other passengers had mediocre in state-run

The Cuba cruise Hanson took also lacked “crucial talks about the ports
you’re going to. Every cruise I’ve ever gone on always had a seminar
talking about tomorrow’s port and the things to do.” Hanson said that
type of information is especially important for Cuba because Americans
have been cut off from the country for so long.

Russell said Fathom has already tweaked some programs with additional
changes coming to give passengers more information, flexibility and
customization in tour options. Some tour guides are also being given
more training to upgrade their skills.

Russell added that because U.S. policies on Cuba “are changing every
day,” the company had a hard time adjusting programs to keep pace. “It
would be crazy to think that everything would have gone perfectly. We
were negotiating policy last minute,” she said.

Sharon Kenny, a writer for Porthole Cruise Magazine, took Fathom to Cuba
and the Dominican Republic and said both experiences were worthwhile.
But she said travelers need to understand that this is “not the
traditional cruise in that you’re not going to be drinking hard, you’re
not going to be in a bathing suit.”

Kenny recalled crowds in Havana greeting them with shouts and
high-fives, and said she still gets teary remembering a woman who told
her: “We’re so glad you’re here. We’ve been waiting for you so long.”

Kenny’s experience in the Dominican Republic was also meaningful. “I
have volunteered on other worthy causes before, but I’m often left
wondering if what I did really mattered,” she said. But she was certain
that the work her Fathom group did — replacing a dirt floor in a
family’s home with concrete — made an impact. Others who volunteered
with Fathom in the Dominican Republic agreed, speaking glowingly of
their experiences planting trees, teaching English and sorting cocoa
in a chocolate factory.

Colleen McDaniel, managing editor of, was on the first
sailing to the Dominican Republic and said “it’s a radically different

“They’ve launched a brand new product nobody’s ever attempted before,”
she said. “They are still fine-tuning and doing some tweaking and
they’ll be the first to tell you that. They’re very open to feedback.
After every excursion you are given a survey to give your immediate
feedback, what did you think of this and how would you make
improvements. They’re really listening and trying to make changes.”

Russell acknowledged that “Fathom is not for everyone.” But she added:
“We’re very pleased with the progress we’re making.”

Source: Are new cruises to Cuba just too different? |

2 Responses to Are new cruises to Cuba just too different?

  • The author is right to be suspicious of “volunteering” aspects of these cruises. I have seen many such activities promoted in the UK for visitors to Cuba, and I view them sceptically. Cuba is not short of unemployed/underemployed individuals who should be paid to do what the tourists are “volunteering” for.

    Having travelled between Havana and Holguin several times by air and car/coach I have seen many unused tracts of land extending over vast areas of seemingly fertile land. Cuba should engage the services of some of its ideological allies that are used to intensive, tropical agriculture eg Vietnam, China, Laos, Cambodia, and use their expertise to run a productive and successful farming system.

    The media recently featured a delegation from iowa that was developing forming links. i can see little in common between Iowa and Cuba, except Iowa can sell to the Cubans; Cuba should concentrate more on improving its own productivity.

    • Thanks for confirming that most tourists, as you, have no real knowledge of Cuba.
      Only people with family in Cuba know the reality of Cuba.

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