Greeted with rum drinks and salsa dancers, the first passengers to cruise from the US to Cuba in nearly 40 years streamed Monday into a crowd cheering the rebirth of commercial travel on waters that served as a stage for a half-century of Cold War hostility. Many watching the festive arrival praised a Cuban government decision to drop a longstanding ban on Cuban-born people returning to their homeland by sea, a step that allowed 16 Cuban-Americans to make the journey from Miami. "This is history," says Mercedes Lopez, a 54-year-old nurse who waited for hours to see Carnival Cruise Line's 704-passenger Adonia pull up to Havana's two-berth cruise terminal. "We Cubans must unite, all of us. This is a step forward, a little step toward normalization, peace, family unification."
The passengers of the Adonia were welcomed by live music and dancing inside Havana's single state-run cruise terminal. Outside, police carved a single lane into the crowd of hundreds of Cubans waiting in Old Havana's Plaza San Francisco for passengers taking walking tours of the restored colonial center. The group included dozens of plainclothes security agents and hawkers promoting restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as many trying to witness history. Cruise ships stopped crossing the Florida Straits from the US after a brief window in the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter allowed virtually all US travel to Cuba. US cruises to Cuba once again become possible after Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente on Dec. 17, 2014. (Read more Cuba stories.)