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Despite change in Cuba policy, cruise ships sail on

TAMPA -- It's smooth sailing for cruises from Tampa to Havana, with the first of Carnival Cruise Line's 12 such excursions launching today, two months after Royal Caribbean's initial voyage from Port Tampa Bay to the island.

Until President Donald Trump announced his new Cuba policy a few weeks ago, no one knew how cruises there would be affected by his administration.

But little is changing, not even how Tampa angles to cash in on the cruises.

The pitch goes like this: Before going to Havana to learn its history and soak in the sun, stay in Tampa for a few days to learn about its historic links with Cuba —- while soaking in the sun.

That synergy may be an easier sell due to the president's policy change that tries to ensure cruises to Cuba focus on education.

"Our history adds value to cruising out of Tampa with a Cuba itinerary," Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson said. "So much of our culture is Cuban."

Because passengers on Thursday's Carnival cruise purchased tickets prior to Trump's Cuba announcement, they are grand-fathered into the old system.

So during their 24 hours in Havana, they will have the option of learning about the city on their own, which is known as a self-certified individual tour.

But under the new policy affecting those now buying Cuba cruise tickets, individual tours are banned. Trump said they provide too much leeway for Americans to abandon education for purely tourist activities in Cuba, which he is making illegal under U.S. law.

Future passengers will have go on certified group tours.

Carnival already offers 16 choices, from a cabaret show to a visit to author Ernest Hemingway's former home, said Terry Thornton, its senior vice-president of port operations. "At this point,'' he said, "there is no impact to our guests.''

Still, for Tampa to financially benefit from cruises, the longer a passenger remains here — either before or after the trip to Cuba — the better.

Travel agencies see opportunity in Tampa's past.

"We have developed a program on the history of relations between Tampa and Cuba," said Vicente Amor, vice president of Tampa travel company ASC International.

He is now marketing to cruise lines tours on topics such as Jose Marti and cigar manufacturing.

"This new paradigm under Trump may be used as an opportunity," Amor said.

Todd Powell, founder of Chicago-based Vacations by Rail, also is on board with such educational excursions and thinks a federal focus on learning could be a benefit.

Powell connects people to cruises via trains that stop at tourist destinations throughout the United States. He envisions a Cuba itinerary that includes Tampa.

"We could put a Cuban theme package together," he said. "Visit cities like Tampa before the cruise so you can get the entire Cuban experience."

Visit Tampa Bay doesn't have statistics on how many total room nights cruises bring to the area. But Patrick Harrison, its chief marking officer, said one South Tampa hotel told him they count thousands a year.

There is also synergy between Tampa and Cuba when it comes to international tourists.

Even before Trump's policy change, at trade shows in New York, Washington D.C. and Germany, Visit Tampa Bay was pitching the idea that tourists with an interest in Cuba first come to Tampa for a few days to experience the city's Cuban culture.

"Our job is to keep people here even when we send them elsewhere," Harrison said.

Among the Tampa places he cites as must-see is the José Martí Trail.

The free walking audio tour of spots in Tampa visited by Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti in the 1890s as he planned Cuba's War of Independence from Spain was created in part by public relations firm Tucker/Hall.

"If you plan to go to Cuba, the trail provides a reason to choose Tampa as the connecting city and spend time here," Tucker Hall president Bill Carlson said. "The whole genesis of it was in anticipation of Cuba cruises."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.