Rome-based Valtur Tour Operators announced that it bas begun marketing Cuba cruises to American passengers aboard the 16,144-ton, 550-passenger Valtur Prima (ex-Italia Prima), with a nationwide media campaign launched last week. Valtur's move follows the announcement by Canada­ based Cuba Cruising Corporation that it will begin sailing Cuba cruises for U.S. citizens in November.

Fully hosted cruises aboard the Valtur Prima, which reportedly complies with the stipulations of the U.S. trade embargo, will begin sailing on June 2, departing Fridays from Montego Bay, Jamaica. The ship will call in Grand Cayman, Havana, Calica, and Cuba's Isle of Youth. The ship will spend 30 hours in port in Havana, arriving each Sunday at 3 p.m. and departing Monday at midnight.

Valtur's U.S. push is being marketed through Bahamas-based representative West Indies Cruises Ltd., and reservations are being processed in Canada by Blyth & CO. - the same travel company which is behind Cuba Cruising Corp., the other company selling Cuba cruises to Americans.

According to a Valtur spokesperson, his company's Cuba product will offer a somewhat different experience from Cuba Cruising Corp.'s: as opposed to the latter company's three- and four-night Bahamas-to-Cuba offerings, Valtur will sell a full seven-night cruise, featuring other destinations in addition to Cuba. Further, the tone of the Valtur cruise will be more leisure-oriented, versus Cuba Cruising Corp. 's decidedly cultural/educational bent (although Valtur will also offer onboard lectures).

The Valtur spokesperson conservatively estimated that the ship would be carrying 35-50 percent Americans by year's end, in addition to its usual contingent of Italians and Germans.

In fact, the Valtur Prima has been operating on this same itinerary for a strictly European clientele since Dec. 1998. Valtur bas the vessel on five-year charter from Italian owner Nina. Reportedly the largest tour operator in Italy, Valtur owns 36 resort properties worldwide and operates two riverboats on the Nile.

In the non-U.S. markets, U.K. operator Fred Olsen Cruises has announced that it will position the 11,500-ton, 450-passenger Black Prince in Havana for a series of four 15-night cruises in 2002, with Cuban ports of call including Santiago, Baracoa and the Isle of Youth. "Havana is actually an excellent homeport, with a fabulous cruise terminal," noted Fred Olsen Director of Marketing Nigel Lingard. In addition to Fred Olsen, the U.K. market is currently offered Cuba cruises by Airtours, which traditionally features Havana calls by one of its ships each winter.