Miami-Dade County

Ferry service to Cuba may return to the Florida Straits

Ferries carrying both passengers and cargo may soon ply the Florida Straits between Florida and Cuba for the first time in more than a half century.

The U.S. government granted licenses Tuesday to at least five companies — Airline Brokers Co. of Miami, Baja Ferries USA, Havana Ferry Partners, United Caribbean Lines and America Cruise Ferries of Puerto Rico — to begin offering ferry service.

Some of the companies said they could begin to offer service within weeks but the plans of others are still in development. Among the departure ports being considered: Key West, Miami, Port Everglades and Tampa-area ports.

In the 1950s before the Cuban Revolution, ferries frequently plied the waters between Miami, Miami Beach, Key West and Havana, carrying Cubans on shopping excursions and Americans on getaways to sample Havana’s nightlife and explore the city. Today, the Cuban government is interested in improving access for its rapidly growing visitor industry.

Before any service can begin, the U.S. Coast Guard must approve the potential Cuban ports of entry and the companies must negotiate matters such as dock access with the Cuban government, said attorney Robert Muse, who represents Baja Ferries USA.

And just because the companies have been approved by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the U.S. Commerce Department, it doesn’t mean Cuba has to strike deals with them. The United States still doesn’t allow Americans to go to the island for vacation, but it does allow family visits and educational, professional and other purposeful travel as long as it falls into 12 approved categories.

When President Barack Obama announced a new policy of engagement with Cuba on Dec. 17 and plans to resume diplomatic relations, he also outlined plans for expanded travel to Cuba and increased commerce. Under the opening, U.S. exports headed to private entrepreneurs are permitted as well as limited imports of the products they produce. Farm equipment, seeds and other farming-related items as well as construction materials and tools are also allowed by the United States as long as they are destined for private hands.

“This not only opens up new travel possibilities but it enhances cargo capacity,” said Muse. The regulations, however, don’t allow for the transportation of motor vehicles, so no car ferries for now.

Because Baja Ferries is a fully operational ferry company that offers service in Mexico, “they can move very quickly on this. They can go right into negotiations with Cuba,” Muse said.

Baja Ferries hopes to offer overnight service to Cuba, most likely out of a South Florida port.

America Cruise Ferries is also an existing ferry service and has operated in the Caribbean market for the past 15 years, said attorney James D. Whisenand, who represents the company. American Cruise Ferries plans three weekly round trips between Miami and Havana on a ship that has capacity for more than 1,000 people plus luggage and freight, he said.

Fort Lauderdale’s Havana Ferry Partners hopes to begin ferry service between Key West and Havana soon, and it eventually wants to expand to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and possibly Tampa.

Leonard Moecklin Sr., Havana Ferry Partner’s managing partner, told the Sun Sentinel that the company hoped to charge around $300 to $350 round trip, which is less than the cost of Cuba charter flights, and that it would allow passengers to carry up to 200 pounds of luggage free.

“We don’t know the costs yet, because we don’t know the costs on the Cuban side,” Moecklin said.

In the case of Airline Brokers Co., a pioneer in the Cuba air charter business and now a purveyor of Cuba travel services, its vessel application was filed in 1991 because it wanted to be able to ferry passengers to the PanAmerican Games in Cuba. For 24 years there was no answer until Tuesday.

Vivian Mannerud, president of Airline Brokers, said she has a ship committed that has space for both passengers and containers. But at this point, she said that she could provide few other details about the potential service. “I have to wait and see what the other requirements will be both for my company and the ship’s owner,” she said.

But there’s still a potential stumbling block to vibrant ferry service between Florida and Cuba, Mannerud said. “Cuba doesn’t allow people born on the island to arrive or depart from Cuba by sea,” she said.

However, there are indications Cuba may be contemplating a change in that regulation.

“I got an email from OFAC this morning about our license and it was a nice way to start the day,” said Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines, which is based in Davenport.

Nierenberg, who has more than 40 years experience in the cruise industry, and his partner Alex Panagopulos, who runs the European shipping company Arista, are looking at several ports in South Florida and Central Florida for their ferry service to Cuba.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to the Cubans how many ferries they want to serve their market,” Nierenberg said. “There’s no way they will want to open their ports to six or seven companies.” But he said with his cruise experience and his partner’s ferry experience, they hoped to strike a deal with Cuba.

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