(12:00 p.m. EDT) -- In a new chapter of the on-off love affair between cruise lines and Cuba, a Canadian tour operator has announced that it will launch week-long voyages out of Havana for the winter season. Toronto-based Cuba Cruise will start service December 4 and use the 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal, which was built in 1980.
This announcement comes a year after the launch of Belize-registered Tropicana Cruises, which also offers round-Cuba holidays, although mainly to Russian guests. The new service helps fill the void left by British line Thomson Cruises, which pulled out of its planned Cuban operation for 2012 for logistical reasons.
A Cuba Cruise spokesman told Cruise Critic that Cristal will have fresh Canadian food shipped in weekly as well as Canadian beer and Cuban/international beverages, thus alleviating the problem of unreliable food provisioning that any cruise line in Cuba could face. Entertainment and front-office crew will, however, be Cuban.
Cuba has always been tricky for cruise lines to offer, as it's difficult for American citizens to get visas to travel there on vacation. Lines carrying American passengers therefore avoid the island altogether, leaving Cuba to European companies, including Fred. Olsen, Compagnie du Ponant, Sea Cloud and Noble Caledonia.
Cuba Cruise, however, is being sold as an in-depth exploration of the island for English-speaking guests, rather than just a single port of call. The ship will call at Bahia Nipe, Cayo Guillermo, Santiago de Cuba, Cayo Caguama (a private island), Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Isla de la Juventud. In addition, it will feature six UNESCO World Heritage Sites and four national parks.
Voyages will be priced as cruise-only from Havana (starting at a reasonable CAD $586, or around £364 per person) and are open to anybody who can legally enter Cuba. Flight-inclusive packages are being offered by various Canadian tour operators, as well as Thomas Cook in Germany, and shortly, the Holiday Place in the U.K.
--By Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor