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Ahoy, Americanos! Tourists Come Ashore in Cuba

The first U.S. cruise ship in nearly 40 years crossed the Florida Straits from Miami and pulled into Havana Harbor on Monday.

The first U.S. cruise ship in nearly 40 years crossed the Florida Straits from Miami and pulled into Havana Harbor on Monday, restarting commercial travel on waters that served as a stage for a half-century of Cold War hostility.

The gleaming white 704-passenger Adonia appeared on the horizon around 8 p.m. EST. Cubans fishing off the city's seaside boulevard, the Malecon, watched it slowly sail toward the colonial fort at the mouth of Havana Harbor.

Though there were some cruises from the United States to Cuba under President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, the Adonia was the first U.S.-owned ship to sail to Cuba from the United States since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

ENRIQUE DE LA OSA / Reuters

Travel limits were restored after Carter left office and U.S. cruises to Cuba only become possible again after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente on Dec. 17, 2014.

Above: Passengers on board Carnival's Adonia cruise ship wave flags as they arrive from Miami in Havana, on May 2.

Joe Cavaretta / South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

The Adonia's arrival is the first step toward a future in which thousands of ships a year could cross the Florida Straits, long closed to most U.S.-Cuba traffic due to tensions that once brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The straits were blocked by the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis and tens of thousands of Cubans have fled across them to Florida on homemade rafts -- with untold thousands dying in the process.

The number of Cubans trying to cross the straits is at its highest point in eight years and cruises and merchant ships regularly rescue rafters from the straits.

Above: Cuban soldiers watch the Carnival Adonia cruise ship arrive in Havana on May 2.

Ramon Espinosa / AP

The Adonia is one of Carnival's smaller ships -- roughly half the size of some larger European vessels that already dock in Havana -- but U.S. cruises are expected to bring Cuba tens of millions of dollars in badly needed foreign hard currency if traffic increases as expected. More than a dozen lines have announced plans to run U.S.-Cuba cruises and if all actually begin operations Cuba could earn more than $80 million a year, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council said in a report Monday.

Above: Passengers aboard the cruise wave during their arrival at Havana Port.

ENRIQUE DE LA OSA / Reuters

Most of the money goes directly to the Cuban government, council head John Kavulich said. He estimated that the cruise companies pay the government $500,000 per cruise, while passengers spend about $100 person in each city they visit.

Above: People look at the city of Havana from the deck of the Adonia as it enters the Havana bay.

ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI / Reuters

Carnival says the Adonia will cruise twice a month from Miami to Havana, where it will start a $1,800 per person seven-day circuit of Cuba with stops in the cities of Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. The trips include on-board workshops on Cuban history and culture and tours of the cities that make them qualify as "people-to-people" educational travel, avoiding a ban on pure tourism that remains part of U.S. law. Optional activities for the Adonia's passengers include a walking tour of Old Havana's colonial plazas and a $219 per person trip to the Tropicana cabaret in a classic car.

Above: Passengers peer from the windows of the ship as it arrives in Havana.

ERNESTO MASTRASCUSA / EPA

Before the 1959 Cuban revolution, cruise ships regularly traveled from the U.S. to Cuba, with elegant Caribbean cruises departing from New York and $42 overnight weekend jaunts leaving twice a week from Miami, said Michael L. Grace, an amateur cruise ship historian.

New York cruises featured dressy dinners, movies, dancing and betting on "horse races" in which steward dragged wooden horses around a ballroom track according to rolls of dice that determined how many feet each could move per turn.

Above: A woman waves a U.S. flag at the Malecon waterfront as the cruise arrives.

ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP - Getty Images

Cruises dwindled in the years leading up to the Cuban Revolution and ended entirely after Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed government.

After Carter dropped limits on Cuba travel, 400 passengers, including musical legend Dizzy Gillespie sailed from New Orleans to Cuba on a 1977 "Jazz Cruise" aboard the MS Daphne. Like the Adonia, it sailed despite dockside protests by Cuban exiles, and continued protests and bomb threats forced Carras Cruises to cancel additional sailings, Grace said.

Above: Cubans watch the ship to arrive in into the port of Havana.

ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP - Getty Images

Cuba cut back on all cruise tourism in 2005, ending a joint venture with Italian terminal management company Silares Terminales del Caribe and Fidel Castro blasted cruise ships during a 4 1/2 hour speech on state television.

"Floating hotels come, floating restaurants, floating theaters, floating diversions visit countries to leave their trash, their empty cans and papers for a few miserable cents," Castro said.

Above: A cruise passenger waves a Cuban flag as he passes locals after arriving in Havana.

Ramon Espinosa / AP

Today, the Cuban government sees cruises as an easy source of revenue that can bring thousands more American travelers without placing additional demand on the country's maxed-out food supplies and overbooked hotels.

Above: A dancer with the welcoming commission waits at the entrance of the cruise terminal in Havana.

JORGE BELTRAN / AFP - Getty Images

Before detente, Americans made surreptitious yacht trips to Cuba during Caribbean vacations and the number of Americans coming by boat has climbed since 2014, including passengers on cruise ships registered in third countries and sailing from other ports in the Caribbean. Traffic remains low, however, for a major tourist attraction only 90 miles (145 kilometers) from Florida. Aiming to change that as part of a policy of diplomatic and economic normalization, Obama approved U.S. cruises to Cuba in 2015.

The Doral, Florida-based Carnival Cruise Line announced during Obama's historic trip to Cuba in March that it would begin cruises to Cuba starting May 1.

Above: Passengers from the cruise ship walk in the streets of Havana after disembarking.

JORGE BELTRAN / AFP - Getty Images

Unexpected trouble arose after Cuban-Americans in Miami began complaining that Cuban rules barred them from traveling to the country of their birth by ship. As Carnival considered delaying the first sailing, Cuba announced April 22 it was changing the rule to allow Cubans and Cuban-Americans to travel on cruise ships, merchant vessels and, sometime in the future, yachts and other private boats.'

Norwegian Cruise Line says it is in negotiations with Cuban authorities and hopes to begin cruises from the U.S. to Cuba this year.

Above: A cruise passenger dances with a couple of Cuban entertainers, as locals welcome the passengers to Havana.

Ramon Espinosa / AP

Cruise traffic is key to the Cuban government's reengineering of the industrial Port of Havana as a tourist attraction. After decades of treating the more than 500-year-old bay as a receptacle for industrial waste, the government is moving container traffic to the Port of Mariel west of the city, tearing out abandoned buildings and slowly renovating decrepit warehouses as breweries and museums connected by waterfront promenades.

Cruise dockings will be limited by the port's single cruise terminal, which can handle two ships at a time.

Above: A passenger poses for a photo with a parrot in Havana.

Ramon Espinosa / AP