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Cuba Ferries

Ferry close – but no cigar yet

One of the obvious spin-offs from the thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba is the prospect of re-establishing regular ferry links to the island from Florida. But with the Cuban government continuing to withhold its permission, it remains a tantalizing objective. Robert Deaves reports.

Cuba is just 80 nautical miles off the southern tip of Florida; yet for the growing number of passenger ferry companies that have been set up in recent years to bridge the gap, it might as well be a thousand miles.

In May 2015 the US Treasury Department started granting licenses to ferry services from US ports for the first time in 50 years. News is scant, but initially the long-awaited services were expected to commence in the fall of 2015. When this didn’t materialize, a possible commencement in late 2016 has been forecast, but ultimately everyone is waiting for the Cuban authorities to reciprocate the initiative.

cuba-ferry

The thawing of relations between the USA and Cuba after half a century of US-imposed trade embargo is opening up many new possibilities for trade and tourism for both countries. A number of new ferry services have been announced over the past six months, but so far not one company has been granted permission from the Cuban side of the Florida Strait.

One of the first companies to jump into the fray was CubaKat. Established in 2011, before the ease in US-Cuban relations, the company intends to run a four-hour round trip catamaran passenger service between several Florida ports and Cuba.

Brian Hall, chief executive of CubaKat, said: “We have not finalized details on vessels, locations and route yet, but Marathon and Key West still represent the best US departure points, with Havana being the prime target for arrivals.”

Demand
He says the demand for their services is huge, both from people who still have family on the island as well as from numerous groups such as schools, colleges and churches. “We’ve been amazed at the demand,” said Hall. “We’re also continually getting requests from non-US citizens who, while visiting the US, want to extend their vacation with a visit to Cuba. Each week, for nearly the past year, we have received dozens of inquiries. We think the demand will allow for multiple ferry and cruise operators to be successful.”

The company is all ready to begin services, but is waiting patiently for its Cuban license.

“While we were hopeful for a 2015 launch date, we’re now focused on the spring of 2016,” said Hall. “The Cuban government, at this stage, has not granted licensing or indicated approval of services, available ports, visa requirements and fees. We are, however, exploring other options and strategic partnerships that would allow our ferries to operate between Florida and Cuba. In fact, we feel as though we’re very close to finalizing an agreement with a third party that would allow us to begin operations.

“We have vessels that are essentially ready for operation. There are still issues to be considered and finalized, including US Customs requirements, parking arrangements at US ports, ticketing software, a more robust website, a restructured marketing campaign, employee development, and fees and taxes for various entities.”

For the time being, most operators are resigned to waiting. Hall concluded: “While ferry operations are a key focus for our group, the Cuban authorities certainly have a number of other issues they are sorting through in regards to opportunities for expanding relationships with American enterprises. There are a fair number of details to work through. We also understand officials in Cuba are trying to make the best decisions for their port cities and the citizens living there who may be affected by the influx of ferry travelers.”

As well as CubaKat, many other companies have applied for a license from the US Treasury Department and are ready to begin ferry services. Not all of them operate from Florida.

New York-based Paradise Express Ferry LLC is hoping to add Cuba to its range of services after winning the bid to develop a ferry terminal in Jamaica to introduce some Jamaican services from Montego Bay. It plans to use 40 meter aluminum catamarans with a capacity of 250 people. While several companies have applied for Florida to Cuba services, Paradise Express is the only one to announce the possibility of services from Jamaica to Cuba. The scheduled services will run several times a day.
Florida-based Baja Ferries, which also operates routes to Mexico, plans to run a passenger and cargo service to Cuba from Miami. It is investing US$ 100 million in the service, with modern 1,000 passenger capacity ferries with 500 cabins.

Wave piercing
Cuba Ferry International is operated by Havana Ferry Partners and was formed in 2009 to establish passenger and cargo services between the Florida Keys and Havana using 300 passenger capacity wave-piercing vessels.

Attica Holdings, through its wholly owned subsidiary Superfast Ferries, plans to offer a daily service between Miami and Havana using two of its modern 1,700 passenger capacity ferries, which can also carry 570 cars.

United Caribbean Lines (UCL) expects to offer services from the Port of Miami and Tampa Bay. Its proposed schedule will have ships departing Florida in late afternoon, arriving in Havana the following morning. Ferries will depart Havana late afternoon and arrive in the US the following morning.

Bruce Nierenberg, chief executive of UCL, expects the services to be operational during 2016. “The Cuban government is in the review process for the proposed ferry service in general,” he said. “There is no specific date established for when they will take additional action. It’s only my opinion, but I would expect that, given the circumstances and amount of new opportunities on the plate of Cuban tourism, they will make decisions on the ferry service in early 2016 for implementation before the end of 2016.”

He explained why he thought the process was taking longer than expected: “Many issues go into this situation. Cuba has many things to consider. There are terminal needs, security issues, traffic definition and expectations, and the impact of the ever-changing US embargo on both passenger and cargo traffic. A completely open border with no US restriction would probably have resulted in a ferry service already starting. That’s not the case, so the pressure to start is simply not there at the moment with the US continued embargo.”

Speaking about UCL’s proposed services, he said: “We intend to operate from both Miami and Tampa on a daily service. It will be overnight, departing Florida in the evening and arriving in Havana the following morning. Same for the return trips. Vessels will be chosen based on the final permits and contract terms of the Cuban government and the amount of competitive capacity that will be in play. The remainder of embargo restrictions will also be a mitigating factor.”

Restrictions
However, he is more pragmatic about the potential growth in ferry services between Florida and Cuba. “It depends on whether there are restrictions on American travelers still in effect. With the current restrictions there is traffic enough for one, maybe two, ferry services. With open borders and no restrictions there will be traffic in cargo and passengers to make double that viable.”

At present, however, travel to Cuba remains prohibited for US citizens except for 12 approved categories, such as people-to-people trips and humanitarian work. And until the Cuban authorities start to issue the necessary licenses, and turn the clock back 50 years to the pre-embargo days of Florida to Havana travel, that is how it remains.