Carnival's Adonia, which carries 710 passengers, is part of its Fathom line.
Carnival’s Adonia, which carries 710 passengers, is part of its Fathom line. (Carnival Corp.)

Carnival Corp.’s plan announced Tuesday to offer cruises to Cuba raises tricky legal and moral questions about travel to the island, South Florida attorneys said.

The Doral-based cruise industry leader plans to offer trips from Miami to the island nation starting in May, which would make it the first U.S. cruise company to visit Cuba since the trade embargo took effect in 1960.

The $2,990 weeklong cruises would be operated by Carnival’s new fathom brand, which focuses on “social impact travel” journeys with volunteer work at the destinations.

Americans with no family ties are not allowed to vacation in Cuba, but humanitarian work is one of 12 embargo exceptions authorized for American travel to Cuba.

“Right now, it’s a really interesting opportunity,” said Coral Gables attorney Jennifer Diaz, who leads Becker & Poliakoff’s customs and international trade practice. “It’s the sexy land that everyone wants to see because no one’s been able to see it. But I still caution everyone to make sure that they really fall into one of those 12 categories.”

U.S. travelers should know they will be responsible for certifying their trip to Cuba is not purely for fun, Diaz said.

Carnival will likely ask passengers to check a box during the booking process affirming they are traveling under one of the 12 exceptions to the travel ban, as room-booking company Airbnb has done since launching in Cuba earlier this year, she said.

Beyond that, the company and others like it will probably not face much risk if the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control looks to crack down on tourism. The onus will almost certainly be on the passenger to show the trip involved more than “sipping mojitos on the beach,” Diaz said.

“If OFAC were to do an audit of your visit, which they have the right to do … they could ask for an agenda, why you were there, what the purpose of your visit was,” she said.

Edward Joffe, who specializes in international law at Joffe & Joffe in Coral Gables, said he believes Carnival will take every precaution necessary to make sure its passengers are traveling legally.

“They wouldn’t make money if people got in trouble,” he said. “We’re entering the realm of big business now if you want to look at it that way. It’s not going to be seat-of-your-pants. When you’re talking about a multibillion-dollar company like Carnival, they will have everything down to a T.”

He predicts other cruise lines will follow Carnival’s example.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for Americans to travel,” Joffe said. “It’s long overdue. There may be some kinks in how it’s provided, but eventually it will be a full-service program, and I would envision it expanding.”

Not all South Floridians are thrilled with the idea of cruising to Cuba.

“We object to any pleasure travel to Cuba, whether it be legal or not, or sanctioned by the U.S. government,” Cuban American Bar Association president Manny Crespo said. “We don’t believe it’s appropriate given human rights violations in Cuba.”

He said he was “very skeptical” that the planned cruises would be for humanitarian purposes only. While the cruises will be aboard the 710-passenger Adonia—far fewer than the 3,000-passenger capacity of many Carnival Cruise Lines ships—Crespo questioned the need for volunteer workers to travel by cruise ship.

“I just find it very strange that a vessel of that size and nature would be at all necessary to transport volunteers to Cuba,” he said. “I would hate to see a reputable company like Carnival fall victim to some kind of scheme to transport people that are signing up for volunteer work simply as a veneer to experience the island as tourists. I think that would be extremely inappropriate.”