A salsa band, dancing schoolchildren and showgirls in bikini tops and feather headdresses welcomed some 1,500 tourists on a British cruise liner that officials described as among the biggest ships to visit Cuba in years.
Once a frequent sight here, cruise ships have become a rarity since 2006, after then President Fidel Castro complained that the industry did little more than flood this communist-governed country with trash.
But the cash-strapped government now led by Fidel's younger brother Raul appears to have taken a rosier view of late. Tourism Ministry official Jose Manuel Bisbe said the arrival of the Thomson Dream underscored the recent resurgence of cruise traffic to the island.
In a brief address to journalists as passengers in shorts and flip-flops streamed off the ship, Bisbe said a number of deals have been signed with European cruise operators to add regular stops in Cuban ports, and more accords are in the works.
We think that more than anything, this change reflects the operators' understanding ... of all Cuba's attributes as a destination, said Bisbe, the ministry's commercial director.
Each passenger spends an average of $50 to $200 a day on the island, he said, adding that officials hope increased traffic will pump several million dollars into the lackluster Cuban economy this year.
Bisbe did not specify how many cruise passengers were expected to dock in Cuban ports in 2011 but said about 10,000 visited the island last year. That was down from some 100,000 passengers in 2005, he said.
Bisbe blamed the downturn on the 2006 purchase of Pullmantur Cruises - a Spanish company that was among the biggest operator of tours to Cuba - by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Washington's trade embargo bars U.S. tourists from visiting Cuba and prohibits nearly all business between both countries, so dockings dried up after the company changed hands.
Cuba rolled out the red carpet to welcome the Thomson Dream, a nine-deck behemoth with four restaurants, two swimming pools, a casino and a disco.
Little girls in traditional white dresses and colorful sashes and others inexplicably decked out in bee costumes performed as waiters to hand out shot-sized samples of Havana Club rum to the disembarking passengers.
Four showgirls in towering headdresses and yellow spandex pants and matching sequin-covered bikini tops struck seductive poses as the tourists snapped pictures.
Richard Ring, a 40-year-old Briton, said he was amazed by the warm welcome.
People were leaning out of windows waving at us and we were waving back. It was really enthusiastic, Ring shouted over the din of the salsa band.
He added that it was nothing like that at the other ports visited by the Thomson Dream during a 14-day cruise, which included stops on the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Grenada and Curacao.
By Jenny Barchfield - AP