Ferry operators interested in carrying cargo and passengers to Cuba have opened discussions with officials at several Florida ports.
Such service has not yet begun because the Cuban government has not approved a U.S. ferry to use one of its ports, but ferries are expected to be a popular way to travel and ship cargo from Florida to the Caribbean island.
Jorge Fernandez, CEO of Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale, tells The Tampa Tribune that the company recently met with Cuban government officials and is optimistic it will receive permission to set sail as early as June.
Fernandez is interested in sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West, but he also has been exploring ports in the Tampa Bay area. Port Manatee would be preferred over ports in Tampa and St. Petersburg, he said, while in Cuba a landing in Havana would be preferred over the port in Santiago.
A ferry from Port Manatee would take roughly eight hours to reach Havana. That's 90 minutes closer than St. Petersburg and three hours closer than Tampa.
Ferry service would be cheaper than baggage fees for a flight for passengers bringing bulk goods to family in Cuba, said Phil Richards, president of Havana Ferry Partners. Tickets would cost roughly $290, and the first 40 to 60 pounds of baggage would be free, he said.
Havana Ferry Partners owns one ferry, a 40-meter, high-speed, wind-piercing Catamaran that can transport as many as 400 passengers but no bulk cargo. It likely would leave from Key West, Richards said.
The company is exploring options for vessels that can carry cargo from other ports.
``A ferry operation makes profits on the cargo and not on the passengers,'' said Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras. ``It would be a real convenience not just for our area but every county south to Collier.''
The Tampa Bay area is home to the third-largest Cuban-American population in the U.S. but it currently has no regularly scheduled cargo lines serving Cuba. Neither does the Port of Miami, though Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and the Port of Jacksonville do have regular cargo service to Cuba.
Port Tampa Bay is talking with ferries looking to connect the area to Cuba, said spokesman Andy Fobes.
``We have the terminals and the appropriate on-site regulatory agencies and facilities already in place to handle passengers,'' Fobes said, ``and one day, once the embargo is lifted, cargo.''
Port St. Petersburg, owned by the city and marketed as a luxury yacht center under the name ``Port St. Pete,'' would likely host ferries carrying mainly passengers with limited cargo space, said executive director Walt Miller.
The infrastructure at Cuba's ports will be tested when U.S. cruise ships begin sailing there from Miami next month.
``The port facilities, cargo handling, security, customs, immigration _ all of it will be under duress due to the cruises,'' said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. ``I don't see Cuba moving forward on ferries until they are comfortable with the cruise ship operations.''