Cruising in Cuba is far from dead following last year's departure of Costa Crociere's Havana­ homeported Costa Playa. Lazaro Gonzalez of Cubanco, the company operating the Havana terminal, said the island expects 120,000 cruise tourists this winter season alone.

"Cuba bas increased hotel occupancy by 300 percent since 1990, but they cannot build hotels fast enough. So they are aggressively targeting the international cruise market," said consultant Ricardo Fernandez of Indigo Service Corp.

According to another source familiar with the Cuban market, the numbers cited by Gonzalez are fueled by two ships homeported in Cuba in 1999: the 525-passenger Italia Prima, owned by Italian operator Nina, and the 833-passenger Triton, chartered by French operator Nouvelles Frontieres from owner Royal Olympic Cruises (ROC). Eight calls are also scheduled by the 1, 186-passenger Aida, chartered by Deutsche Seereederei Touristik from owner Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), and three calls are scheduled by Peter Deilmann Reederei's 650-passenger Deutschland, which will visit Cuba on its world cruise.

This cruise schedule brings up several questions relating to U.S. embargo law, however. First, how can the Deutschland call in Cuba and then call in Los Angeles two weeks later, when U.S. law requires that any ship calling in Cuba must bypass all U.S. ports for 180 days? Second, can an NCL-owned ship call in Cuba without U.S. approval? And by the same token, can a ship owned by ROC, a company publicly traded on the NASDAQ, have its ship chartered to a company homeporting in Cuba?

When asked, a spokesperson for the U.S. Treasury Department Bureau of Foreign Asset Control said that if a ship calls in Los Angeles two weeks after Cuba, it would be a clear violation and the ship would not be allowed to call in the United States. In response to the question of foreign-chartered ships sailing or homeporting in Cuba, the spokesperson would not comment.

A spokesperson for ROC said that the company was unaware of where the ship's French charterer was basing the vessel. NCL's general counsel Robert Kritzman said he was studying the implications of the issue but believed it was legally permissible.