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Carnival Corp. gets U.S. approval for Cuba cruises

Carnival Corp. is steering a course toward Cuba.

The world's largest cruise ship company announced Tuesday that it had received approval from the U.S. government to operate cruises to the island nation as a provider of cultural exchange programs.

Plans call for the Doral-based company's "social impact travel" brand, the recently announced Fathom, to start operating weeklong Cuban itineraries in May 2016 using the 710-passenger vessel that now sails as P&O Cruises' Adonia in the United Kingdom.

"I think it's going to be a tremendous experience for the Fathom travelers, a great way to build what looks like an extremely promising future for cruise travel to Cuba and beyond for Americans," Carnival president and CEO Arnold Donald said. "We feel really privileged to be granted the licenses."

Still pending: approval from Cuban authorities and a survey of infrastructure at ports where the ship might call.

Ships would depart from Miami, and initial plans do not involve Tampa, Carnival officials said. But officials said Tampa might be considered in the future if Fathom is expanded.

Port Tampa Bay released a statement saying it is ready to serve the Cuban market.

"Today's news bodes well for future opportunities for Port Tampa Bay, which is well positioned as one of the closest cruise ports to Havana, to one day serve this new cruise destination," the statement said. "Port Tampa Bay has the facilities and key partnerships in place for the cruise and ferry business to grow and thrive and is 'Cuba-ready.' "

Donald said Carnival has long studied Cuba as a potential destination but became encouraged about the possibility after President Barack Obama announced plans to thaw a decadeslong diplomatic freeze in December. The company applied for approval a few months ago, he said.

"One of the possibilities we always considered was with a purpose-driven social impact brand, it could qualify under the existing 12 criteria for U.S. citizens to be able to travel to Cuba," Donald said.

As part of the normalizing of relations, the U.S. Department of the Treasury said earlier this year that citizens who fall under 12 categories of authorized travel — which includes educational activities, humanitarian projects or people-to-people programs — need not apply for a specific license to go to Cuba.

"Innately, the way we designed and built the Fathom experience, our experience aligns with that authorized form of travel," said Tara Russell, president of Fathom and head of global impact for Carnival Corp.

Passengers from the United States will still have to certify that they are traveling under one of the authorized categories, and they will pay a premium for the experience. Prices for seven-day cruises to Cuba will start at $2,990 per person, which includes meals on the ship and some cultural immersion activities on land. The fare does not include taxes or fees, and traditional tour excursions will not be available.

Reservations opened for potential Cuba trips Tuesday; deposits will be fully refundable.

Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report.

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