A cruise ship sailed into Havana harbor this morning with 568 American college students on board, officially ending a nine-year hiatus from Cuba's shores.
After being prohibited from including Cuba as a stop on its "Semester at Sea" program by the U.S. government due to increased restrictions in educational travel to the island nation, the University of Virginia, the program's current sponsor, was issued a U.S. Treasury license this year.
Students from more than 200 U.S. schools are taking part in this year's program.
Between 1999 and 2004, the program made 10 stops in Havana and met with then-president Fidel Castro seven times.
But the Treasury Department revoked the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) license that permitted the group to organize travel to Cuba, and it was eliminated from the syllabus.
The nautical study abroad program provides students with a campus aboard the 590-foot MV Explorer and anchors in 10 to 15 different nations throughout approximately four months in the fall and spring and two months in summer voyages. This fall, the list of nations students visited spanned three continents and included England, Russia, Spain, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil.
The "floating university" will be in Cuba for three days. The plan calls for the students to spend time at the University of Havana, touring the colonial part of the capital and meeting with local politicians and economists. During past trips, students also spent time smoking cigars, dancing to salsa music and absorbing the local culture.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the program, <a href="http://www.semesteratsea.org/" target="_blank">according to its website</a>. Since 1963, more than 55,000 students have participated in the program.
<em>Daniella Silva of NBC News contributed to this report. </em>
First published December 9 2013, 9:08 AM