By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba said on Friday it would lift a ban on Cubans and Cuban-Americans entering and leaving the Caribbean island by commercial vessels, opening the way for cruise operator Carnival Corp to set sail for the country next week.
Carnival's May 1 cruise, the first from the United States to the Communist-run country since the 1959 revolution, was thrown into doubt when the company triggered a backlash by refusing Cuban-Americans passage due to a Cold War-era law.
A statement carried by state-run media said that starting April 26, Cuban citizens would be authorized "independently of their migratory status to enter and leave as passengers and crews of cruise ships."
"This is a positive outcome and we are extremely pleased. We want to extend our sincere appreciation to Cuba and to our team who worked so hard to help make this happen," Carnival Chief Executive Arnold Donald said in a statement.
Carnival received approval from the United States last year to sail to Cuba, and the green light from Havana a day after U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit to the country in March.
The waters between the two countries have been the scene of mass migration, hijacking and other crimes in the past, leading Cuba to ban Cubans from traveling by boat without special permission, even though restrictions on traveling by air were lifted years ago.
Protests in Miami, where the company is based, a discrimination suit and criticism by Secretary of State John Kerry led Carnival to start accepting bookings from Cuban-Americans earlier this month.
The company said it would postpone the cruise if necessary, but also expressed confidence Cuba would rescind the law before its first 'Fathom' adventure, which is expected to begin sailing to three Cuban cities every fortnight from May 1.
Cuban-born Americans are free to enter their homeland by air, with around 300,000 arriving every year.
The Cuban statement on Friday said authorities were also reviewing a ban on citizens from boarding recreational vessels such as fishing boats and yachts.
(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Bernadette Baum)