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Florida ports, ferry operators want to run a slow boat to Cuba
An Orlando resident is leading a ferry-line effort.
William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel
WASHINGTON — Imagine boarding a deluxe ferry boat at Port Everglades or the Port of Tampa one evening, settling into a cabin or a reclining chair and sailing into Havana harbor as the sun rises the next morning, all for $150 to $300 roundtrip.
Florida port officials are planning for this tantalizing prospect, while ferry operators push the Obama administration to allow them to make it a reality.
For thousands of Cuban-Americans and other passengers scrambling for seats on charter flights to Cuba, ferry service would be a cheaper new way to get themselves and lots of luggage to the island. Some of them once fled to Florida on rickety boats; now, they want to return by water to bring money and goods to their families.
The ferry operators want a piece of the growing traffic to Cuba, which is overwhelming air charters. Port officials want to position themselves to tap a potential burst of leisure travel if the U.S. ban on tourist trips to Cuba is ever lifted.
The ferry operators and port promoters are also developing plans for ferry service to other destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, potentially conveying some of the millions of visitors who pass through Central Florida's vast vacation complex.
"The Cuba part requires government approval, but we are talking about ferry service throughout the Caribbean," said Bruce Nierenberg of Orlando, a former cruise line executive who has applied to the U.S. Treasury Department for permission to establish a ferry line to Cuba from Port Everglades, Tampa and the Port of Miami.
He's pitching it as a low-cost service for consumers, especially Cuban-Americans clustered in South and Central Florida, who can travel more frequently if they avoid airfares that cost nearly $400 roundtrip.
During a 35-year career in the travel industry, Nierenberg was CEO of Scandinavian World Cruises, started the one-day "cruises to nowhere" on Seascape and founded Premier Cruise Lines. He envisions well-appointed ocean-going ferries to Cuba carrying about 1,200 passengers who pay $150 for a reclining chair or about $300 for cabins.
He hopes to start with service to Cuba as early as this year to take advantage of a ready-made market and begin ferries to Mexico and other countries in 2012.
Ports gear up
"Eventually, somebody is going to make this happen. And Tampa would be the right fit," said Wade Elliott, senior director of marketing for the Tampa Port Authority. "We're ready. We have the terminal facilities. Whenever we get the green light, we will look for an opportunity to do it."
Port Everglades also plans on a burst of business if ferries are allowed to make the 250-mile trip to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale. Port officials have talked with Nierenberg and contacted other potential ferry operators here and in Spain, France, Norway and Latin America who have shown interest in providing service.
"It could be an explosion in the market once people see the convenience of being able to drive to the port, get on a ferry and — after a nice dinner and a bit of sleep — arrive in Cuba," said Carlos Buqueras, director of business development at Port Everglades.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has joined the push. She cites census data indicating that 110,000 Cuban-Americans live in Central Florida, 71 percent of them within an hour's drive of Tampa's airport and seaport.
"We must continue to focus on creating jobs and diversifying Florida's economy," Castor said, "which is why I support the new business that is interested in launching a ferry service to Cuba and Mexico from the Port of Tampa."
President Barack Obama set off a surge of traffic to Cuba in 2009 when he allowed Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips to see their families.
He ignited another potential burst of travel in January with new rules that allowed more airports to establish flights to Cuba and made it easier for non-Cuban-Americans — especially educational and religious groups — to visit the island.
Air-charter operators with service from airports in Miami, New York and Los Angeles estimate the number of passenger trips per year since 2009 has roughly doubled to about 400,000.
"Business is booming," reported Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters in Miami, which flies to Havana five times a week. "The flights are full. We have more demand right now than we have flights."
The demand intensifies pressure to allow ferry service from Florida's seaports, which already have Customs and immigration facilities to process cruise line passengers.
"We need to open more gateways. The desire to travel is such that with the new regulations there just are not enough seats," Silvia Wilhelm of Miami said last week while packing for one of her frequent trips to Cuba to visit relatives and escort cultural and religious groups.
Wilhelm, a longtime advocate for unlimited travel, said passengers now arrive at a remodeled terminal in Havana, a sign the Cuban government would welcome more visits.
Some Cuban-Americans are appalled by the rush to Cuba, which they say sustains the Castro regime with a crucial infusion of American dollars. They and other defenders of the five-decade U.S. embargo hope to choke the Cuban economy and force political reforms, much like what is happening in parts of the Arab world.
When asked about the prospect of a ferry, U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, cited a recent Cuban crackdown on human-rights activists. "Now is not the time to be giving unilateral concessions to this terrorist dictatorship," he said. "The Obama administration should immediately rescind its recent lifting of sanctions and send a clear message that the U.S. will not tolerate Cuba's lawless behavior."
Sources with ties to the administration say the ferry proposal was considered when officials devised the new rules in January, but it was shelved for the time being because of security concerns.
Impatient to begin, Nierenberg said a ferry would simply offer consumers a different mode of transportation at a lower cost.
"The market is sitting there waiting to be activated," he said, "and we would like to be the first."