Festival Cruises' first-ever program in Cuba is by no means a tentative, one-time foray. Rather, the Mistral's winter 2001-2002 season is but the first step in a bid to secure coveted Havana pier slots for years to come.

Festival Chairman George Poulides confirmed that he has come to a long-term agreement with the Cuban government - "and I mean more than three or four years" - which will allow "any number" of Festival vessels to utilize berths in Havana. Poulides revealed that Festival intends to announce plans in the next six to eight weeks to possibly bring another ship into Havana in summer 2002 after the Mistral returns to Europe this April, and to potentially position not one but two of its ships in Havana beginning in winter 2002-2003.

After that, said Poulides, "Our plans are to have two ships in Cuba on a year-round basis - possibly more."

According to a knowledgeable source, "Cuba is ready to provide very special support for a ship owner that steps up and takes the risks today, not a ship owner that is only willing to sit back now and enjoy the benefits tomorrow."

As part of Festival's new arrangement with the Cuban government, passengers arriving on chartered flights from Europe are provided expected treatment at the airport's immigration desks, allowmg them to pass through quickly, and have their baggage automatically transferred from the plane to the ship. The Cuban government does not stamp passports for arriving passengers, only their visa forms, and Festival customers are generally onboard the vessel within 40 minutes of landing.

Cruise Industry News has previously reported that Cuba will pursue a limited "Bermuda"-style cruise policy versus the open-ended model found elsewhere in the Caribbean. No more than five vessels will be allowed to berth in Havana on any given day, with all other ships diverted to berths in ports outside the city, in Mariel and Matanzas. Other destinations accessible to cruise traffic elsewhere on the island include Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and Isle de Juventud, where a half-million-dollar renovation in 2001 was undertaken to prepare the private beach facility for Festival's arrival this winter.

It is believed that the North American cruise lines are closely watching Festival's relationship with Cuba, and that these lines are "very concerned" that Festival - unhampered by the constraints of U.S. law - is making considerable headway in securing Havana's limited berthing capacity prior the end of the trade embargo.