By Kate Webster @TravellerKate16 Mar 2017Ever since Obama eased travel restrictions for Americans back in 2015, interest in going to the Caribbean’s largest island has skyrocketed, and cruise liners are lining up for a piece of the action. The first cruise ship in many decades, the Carnival Corp.-owned vessel, sailed between Miami and Havana last year, and since then, rival cruise lines have been making plans as they waited for their turns. Cuban authorities have given permission for more cruise lines to visit the country, so just who is visiting and when? MSC Cruises MSC was the first mainstream cruise line to base a ship in Cuba back in 2015, when it added Havana and Isla de la Juventus to itineraries on MSC Opera. MSC Armonia will complete its seven and 14-night Caribbean, Cuba and Antilles itineraries this month, while MSC Opera will continue to be based in Havana year-round. The seven-night itinerary features three-nights in Havana, followed by calls in Montego Bay, George Town and Cozumel, before returning to Havana. Fourteen-night itineraries include a generous five nights in Havana — two at the start and three midway through the cruise — plus additional port calls of Roatan, Belize City and Costa Maya. “Cuba is not a competition to anybody, it’s multiplying the itinerary experiences,” said Roberto Fusaro, president MSC Cruises (USA), whose line now visits the island with two of its ships. Norwegian (NCL) Norwegian will visit the island with its three brands — Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises, and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — by incorporating Havana stops into existing itineraries. The first will be a sailing from Miami in March on Oceania’s Marina, which has capacity for 1,250 passengers. The ship is currently scheduled for a 14-day trip with 10 stops; the itinerary will change to include Havana. The 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner will visit the island twice in April. And Norwegian Sky, a 2,004-passenger ship, will call on Havana during “a selection of” four-day trips in May originally planned to visit only the Bahamas. Royal Caribbean International Royal Caribbean Cruises Limited announced it has been approved by the Cuban government and will start with sailings to the Caribbean island on Royal Caribbean International as early as April 2017 Azamara Club Cruises’ sailings soon to be announced. The first itinerary will be on board the newly revitalised Royal Caribbean Empress of the Seas with a five-night sailing from Miami on 17 April, followed by departures from Tampa on 30 April and 20 May 2017, with full itineraries to be released soon. The largest ship to sail to Cuba from the United States, Empress will provide holiday-makers with the opportunity to discover the timeless sights, sounds and culture of this exciting island nation with especially curated “people-to-people” holidays that will immerse passengers in the natural beauty of Cuba, its architecture, cuisine, music and art. The Empress of the Seas, is fitted with Cuban themed elements from salsa music in the Boleros Latin lounge as well as sequined and feathered Broadway-style shows and aromatic cortaditos and café con leche in Café Royal to enjoy in between all the dancing and fun. Local experts will guide travellers around Old Havana – a UNESCO World Heritage site – spoiled with historic neighbourhoods, local artisan markets, Havana’s very own rum museum and Finca La Vigia, Hemingway’s former residence all of which makes Cuba the gem of the Caribbean. Carnival Cruise Lines Carnival Cruise Line announced that Havana, Cuba will be added to select Carnival Paradise voyages from Tampa beginning in June 2017. The overnight visits to Havana will be featured on 12 four and five-day cruises onboard Carnival Paradise departing from the Port of Tampa starting June 29, 2017, providing holidaymakers with a rare and exciting opportunity to explore this fascinating and previously off-limits destination. Four-day cruises will depart June 29, July 13, August 24, September 7 and 21, and October 5 and 19, 2017 as well as May 3, 2018 and include a daytime and overnight visit to Havana. Five-day voyages will depart August 14 and 28, September 25 and October 9, 2017, and include a daytime and overnight visit to Havana as well as a stop in either Cozumel or Key West. Guests cruising with Carnival Paradise will be able to choose from a range of exciting shore excursion experiences that showcase Cuba’s vibrant culture and majestic beauty, along with the island’s warm and friendly people and centuries-old architectural landmarks. Why Cruise to Cuba anyway? Culturally much of Cuba has been stuck in the 1950s since revolutions and political turmoil led to a series of trade embargos, which means the destination still offers that old-world charm. The largest Caribbean island’s signature architecture, art, food and music, as well as beautiful beaches offer great allure for travellers. Tour Havana in a car from the 1950s or see UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Cienfuegos and Trinidad. Here are some reasons why cruising is the best way to visit Cuba: It’s cheaper… Touring Cuba by land is expensive due to the shortage of hotel rooms, as interest in Cuba has grown, rates at the island’s limited number of hotel rooms have skyrocketed. While cruises to Cuba are not cheap compared to other Caribbean destinations, the costs are still cheaper than a land trip. Ease of access…. Roads and infrastructure in Cuba have a long way to go before they are up to the standards of more developed countries, so cruise travellers see more of Cuba than many visitors, because a cruise approaches these cities by sea, allowing travellers to circumnavigate the island. Most cruises that visit Cuba go to at least three ports, including Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. Shore excursion choices… On a cruise, passengers are given a choice of excursions in every port, operated by cruise line approved ground operators. If these do not suit, then they have the ability to do their own thing. While most Cuban ports don’t have the independent tour options that you’ll find elsewhere in the Caribbean, there’s nothing to prevent you from hiring a taxi or simply walking around on your own. You only unpack once… The same reason why any cruise is good, you only have to unpack once, instead of carting your things from hotel to hotel, making for a smother holiday experience. Have you seen a spike in cruise bookings to Cuba? Share your thoughts below. Other stories you may like Norwegian’s first Australia-based cruise ship sails into Sydney VIP experience at the Vatican, Regent adds more Cuba calls & more travel news Who are the best cruise consultants? Nominate your faves now!