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LONDON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - MSC Cruises will this week become the first major liner to start operations in Cuba, part of its efforts to grow a global presence, the Swiss group's chief executive said.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a year ago they would work toward a normalisation of relations after half a century of Cold War hostility, although a U.S. trade embargo of Cuba remains in place.
Privately-owned MSC Cruises, the world's fourth biggest line, said while its cruises were not currently being offered to U.S. customers, bookings by Europeans and Canadians had been "above our estimations".
"Out of the main four global cruise lines in the world, we are the first one (into Cuba) and the only one not headquartered in the U.S," Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises, said in an interview.
Miami-based rival Carnival Corp, the world's largest cruise operator, has said it planned to take travelers to the communist island nation next May on specialised cultural and humanitarian visits that fall within U.S. embargo guidelines.
The MSC Opera vessel, which can carry 2,600 passengers, is due to arrive in Havana on Dec. 18.
"Havana has never seen a ship this size," Onorato said. "The present (port) infrastructure is adequate."
A second ship, MSC Armonia, also able to carry 2,600 passengers, will operate out of Cuba from November 2016 for the entire winter season.
Onorato said a section of Havana airport had been earmarked for the specific charter flights bringing in passengers going on their cruises, which at its peak will number 4,500 to 5,000 guests a week.
"They have never experienced in the past ... such a high number of charter flights," he said.
MSC Cruises, part of holding company MSC Group which also owns the world's number two container shipping line Mediterranean Shipping Company, was established in 2003 and has a fleet of 12 cruise ships. It has orders for up to seven further vessels as part of a 5.1 billion euro investment programme.
It plans to double the number of passengers it carries to 3.4 million people annually by 2021.
Onorato said MSC Cruises was also expanding in China and from May would base one of its vessels in Shanghai. It was also targeting the Middle East including the United Arab Emirates.
Onorato said Iran could also become a focus once Western sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic were lifted.
"I do think that Iran could be both a new market on the one side and can be also a destination," he said. "Hormuz island can be very, very captivating for consumers." (Editing by Tom Heneghan)