Image: Thomson Dream
Franklin Reyes  /  AP
The British cruise ship Thomson Dream arrives in Havana Bay, Cuba, on Wednesday. The ship docked in Havana carrying 1,500 passengers as part of a three week tour of the Caribbean.
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updated 1/5/2011 7:59:59 PM ET 2011-01-06T00:59:59

A salsa band, dancing schoolchildren and showgirls in bikini tops and feather headdresses welcomed some 1,500 tourists on a British cruise liner that officials described as among the biggest ships to visit Cuba in years.

Once a frequent sight here, cruise ships have become a rarity since 2006, after then President Fidel Castro complained that the industry did little more than flood this communist-governed country with trash.

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But the cash-strapped government now led by Fidel's younger brother Raul appears to have taken a rosier view of late. Tourism Ministry official Jose Manuel Bisbe said the arrival of the Thomson Dream underscored the recent resurgence of cruise traffic to the island.

In a brief address to journalists as passengers in shorts and flip-flops streamed off the ship, Bisbe said a number of deals have been signed with European cruise operators to add regular stops in Cuban ports, and more accords are in the works.

"We think that more than anything, this change reflects the operators' understanding ... of all Cuba's attributes as a destination," said Bisbe, the ministry's commercial director.

Each passenger spends an average of $50 to $200 a day on the island, he said, adding that officials hope increased traffic will pump "several million dollars" into the lackluster Cuban economy this year.

Bisbe did not specify how many cruise passengers were expected to dock in Cuban ports in 2011 but said about 10,000 visited the island last year. That was down from some 100,000 passengers in 2005, he said.

Bisbe blamed the downturn on the 2006 purchase of Pullmantur Cruises — a Spanish company that was among the biggest operator of tours to Cuba — by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Washington's trade embargo bars U.S. tourists from visiting Cuba and prohibits nearly all business between both countries, so dockings dried up after the company changed hands.

Cuba rolled out the red carpet to welcome the Thomson Dream, a nine-deck behemoth with four restaurants, two swimming pools, a casino and a disco.

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Little girls in traditional white dresses and colorful sashes and others inexplicably decked out in bee costumes performed as waiters to hand out shot-sized samples of Havana Club rum to the disembarking passengers.

Four showgirls in towering headdresses and yellow spandex pants and matching sequin-covered bikini tops struck seductive poses as the tourists snapped pictures.

Richard Ring, a 40-year-old Briton, said he was amazed by the warm welcome.

"People were leaning out of windows waving at us and we were waving back. It was really enthusiastic," Ring shouted over the din of the salsa band.

He added that "it was nothing like that" at the other ports visited by the Thomson Dream during a 14-day cruise, which included stops on the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Grenada and Curacao.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: New cruise ships sailing into 2011

  • Image: Allure of the Seas
    Roni Lehti  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Allure of the Seas

    Looks like it’s full speed ahead for the cruise industry. With Allure of the Seas now in Fort Lauderdale, Disney Dream set to debut and a half-dozen other new ships on the way, the rough seas of the recession are growing calmer by the day.

    That’s good news for cruisers, says Stewart Chiron, aka The Cruise Guy. “The fact that these ships are coming out during difficult times is a testament to the industry’s resilience,” he said. “A lot of people who wouldn’t have taken a cruise before are now considering one.”

    First-timer or not, here’s a look at eight new additions to the fleet:

  • Allure of the Seas

    Image: Allure of the Seas' zipline
    Rob Lovitt

    Allure embarked on her inaugural cruise on Dec. 5, and she shares the title of world’s biggest cruise ship with its twin Oasis of the Seas, but adds a few new amenities. In addition to the zip line and skating rink, the surf machines and climbing walls, you’ll also find a 3-D theater, the first Romero Britto store at sea and two new restaurants, including a Mexican cantina and Brazilian steakhouse. Get some sleep before you go, suggests Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief at CruiseCritic.com, or be prepared to swing by another new onboard amenity: the first Starbucks at sea.

  • Marina

    Image: Oceania Marina
    Oceania

    A Lalique grand staircase, a hands-on culinary arts center co-sponsored by Bon Appétit and a trio of owners’ suites with Ralph Lauren furnishings — Marina has all the makings of an ultra-premium experience, but with a surprisingly “egalitarian” ambience. As Oceania’s first purpose-built ship (launching Jan. 22), Marina is significantly larger than its siblings (65,000 tons vs. 30,000), carries more passengers (1,258 vs. 684) and features several new restaurants, including Jacques, the first eatery anywhere to bear the name of famed French chef Jacques Pépin. “[Marina] will be an intriguing hybrid of luxury and mid-market pricing,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s a category that’s never existed before.”

  • Disney Dream

    Image: Disney Dream
    Disney

    It’s been 11 years since Disney launched a new cruise ship and Mickey’s minions have clearly gone all out. Launching on Jan. 26, the ship will carry 2,500 passengers (4,000 with all beds filled) on fantasy-filled cruises between Port Canaveral and the Bahamas. Among the innovations: The Enchanted Garden restaurant, where the decor changes from day to night; inside cabins with virtual portholes with underwater scenes, and the AquaDuck, a 750-foot “watercoaster” that winds up, down and around the ship’s upper decks. “Dream is the Oasis of 2011,” said Spencer Brown. “It’s going to be different than everything that’s come before it.”

  • L’Austral

    Image: L'Austral
    Erick Larrieu  /  L'Austral

    Having opened a U.S. office just this year, the French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant is probably still unfamiliar to many American cruisers. That may change with the arrival of the line’s fifth ship, L’Austral, a 132-cabin mega-yacht that will launch on April 27. Not surprisingly, the onboard amenities — two restaurants, plus a spa, theater, lounge and library — will provide more than a soupçon of French flair even as the ship’s itineraries take her far beyond the Côte d’Azur. After spending the summer in the Mediterranean, the ship will sail on to Africa, Antarctica and other exotic ports of call.

  • Carnival Magic

    Image: Carnival Magic
    Carnival

    The latest addition to the Carnival fleet manages a neat trick: Although it’s a carbon copy of Carnival Dream, this 130,000-ton, 3,690-passenger ship tweaks the Fun Ship formula with several new amenities. Get a workout on the first ropes course at sea; cool off in a waterpark featuring a 500-gallon dump bucket, then retire to the RedFrog Pub for private-label beers and Caribbean-flavored snacks or Cucina del Capitano for hand-made pastas and select Italian wines. Launching on May 1, “Magic is perfect for entry-level or first-time cruisers,” said Dwain Wall, senior vice president/general manager for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.

  • Seabourn Quest

    Image: Seabourn Odyssey
    Copyright 2009 Michel Verdure

    As the sister ship to the Odyssey (pictured) and Sojourn, Seabourn Quest joins a fleet that Chiron calls “quite possibly the nicest cruise ships on the planet.” Like her predecessors, the ship features a two-deck spa, four restaurants and 225 suite-style cabins, 90 percent of which have private balconies. The result: a yacht-like experience without upper-crust fustiness that draws younger cruisers than other ultra-luxury lines. You can join them on a three-day pre-inaugural cruise from Monte Carlo on June 9, a 14-day maiden voyage from Barcelona on June 20 or, if you’re feeling flush, a 109-day world cruise starting Jan. 5, 2012.

  • Costa Favolosa

    Image: Costa Favoloso
    Matteo Piazza  /  Courtesy of Costa Cruises

    The name is Italian for fairy tale; the decor is modeled after an enchanted castle, and the ambience is Carnival Fun Ship (Costa’s parent company) meets the Continent. Launching on July 4, the 3,000-passenger ship offers several of Costa’s signature Concordia-class amenities, including a Grand Prix driving simulator, 4-D cinema (3-D, plus physical effects) and two-level pool deck with a glass roof and movie screen. New additions, including verandah suites with Jacuzzi tubs, a teen entertainment area and a water park for little cruisers, should only add to la dolce vita.

  • Celebrity Silhouette

    Image: Celebrity Eclipse
    Simon Brooke-Webb  /  Celebrity

    Details are still sketchy on Celebrity’s newest ship, but the fourth vessel in the line’s innovative Solstice class will replicate the most popular amenities of her predecessors, including a glass-blowing studio, recreation area with real grass and Qsine, the eclectic, iPad-menu-equipped restaurant that debuted on Eclipse (pictured). “It’ll be like a floating boutique hotel,” said Chiron of the 2,850-passenger ship, which will begin sailing Mediterranean and Holy Land itineraries on July 23. Those who prefer more tropical itineraries will have to wait until next fall when the ship will start offering 12-night Caribbean cruises from Bayonne, N.J.

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