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Mayor Kriseman among passengers diverted at sea under Trump's new Cuba travel restrictions

A Cuban and an American flag hang in the atrium of  the Carnival Paradise during its inaugural from Tampa to Havana in June 2017. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
A Cuban and an American flag hang in the atrium of the Carnival Paradise during its inaugural from Tampa to Havana in June 2017. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Jun. 5, 2019

Ever since the Obama administration moved to normalize relations with Cuba, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has worked to build relationships between Tampa Bay and the island nation off Florida's shores.

Kriseman has traveled in local delegations to Havana, hosted Cuban interests in St. Petersburg, and finally, made plans "to bring members of his family and extended family there for an educational tour," his office said in an email Wednesday.

"That day was supposed to be today," according to the email.

Instead, as Kriseman and more than a dozen members of his family sailed for Cuba, they and other shocked passengers aboard cruise ships already at sea fell victim to the change in the White House.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration ordered Cuba removed from all U.S. cruise itineraries — immediately.

Rather than porting in Havana, Kriseman and his family — aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship that sailed from Port Canaveral — were diverted to the Bahamas. They were still at sea Wednesday and could not be reached.

The ban is part of new restrictions the United States has placed on all travel to the island nation.

READ MORE: Future in doubt for Tampa-Havana travel with new restrictions from Trump administration

Also Wednesday, Carnival Corp., which has run cruise ships between Tampa and Havana since the Obama initiative, announced it was ending its Cuba itinerary.

"Additional details will be provided for currently booked cruises by the cruise lines," Carnival wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Carnival had more to say in an email to travel agents and customers, informing them that guests currently on board a ship sailing to Cuba will port instead at Cozumel. The company told them it is "working as quickly as possible to secure alternatives for itineraries for the remainder of our Cuba voyages."

Carnival expects to have answers, the email said, in the next two to three days.

The 2,000-passenger Carnival Paradise was scheduled to sail from Port Tampa Bay to Havana every other week through 2020, said port spokeswoman Samara Sodos. The next scheduled cruise was to be this Saturday.

Customers sailing through the end of July will have three options, according to the email:

• Accept the alternative itinerary and receive a $100 per-person on-board credit.

• Move to another itinerary and receive a $50 per-person on-board credit.

• Cancel and receive a full refund.

Still, for Port Tampa, the end of the Havana itinerary only means "business as usual," said Raul Alfonso, executive vice president.

Carnival assured him that the number of cruises from Tampa will remain the same.

Asked whether the port will miss the Cuba itinerary, Alfonso said only, "We have no opinion on that matter."

One person with a stake in the move who does have an opinion is Suzanne Carlson, founder of Tarpon Springs' Carlson Maritime Travel.

"This is huge," said Carlson, who schedules cruises to Cuba. "Most who booked these cruises booked for the sake of going to Havana. We will have to see what everyone wants to do."

Carnival offered a few itineraries that included a Cuba stop, she said. Some sailed directly to Havana. Others stopped in Key West and Cozumel.

The Trump administration's new restrictions ban group and educational travel of any kind, otherwise known as "people to people" trips. The opportunities, the most popular among a dozen or so categories established by the United States, introduced Americans to Cuban artists and business people and taught them about nation's history.

The Tuesday announcement included the caveat that Cuba travel plans booked prior to June 5 would be allowed. Initially, observers believed incorrectly that this included cruises.

For now, Carlson said, those flying to Cuba for group tours already booked are indeed grandfathered in.

Royal Caribbean had offered Tampa to Havana trips early on but had none scheduled through 2020, Sodos said.

Eric Johnson of Arlington, Va., was scheduled to sail with his wife from Miami to Cuba on June 15 aboard a Royal Caribbean ship.

They'll stay with the cruise, despite the change in itinerary, but they're disappointed.

Cuba "has been off limits for so long," Johnson said. "I have always been fascinated by it."

The office of Mayor Kriseman, in its email, accused Trump of hypocrisy in the decision to restrict travel with Cuba. The email blasts Trump's "coziness with the dictators of North Korea and Russia" while continuing his "demonization of Cuba's government."

Kriseman, a Democrat, "looks forward to the day when we can again build on the progress we made under President Barack Obama."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow@PGuzzoTimes.

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