Destination Cuba – Ferry Operators Eye Florida to Havana Service
Destination Cuba: Ferry Operators Eye Florida to Havana Service
Move comes after Washington lifted some travel restrictions that have
long made Cuba practically off limits for most Americans
By COSTAS PARIS
April 24, 2015 10:28 a.m. ET
Ferry operators are racing to be the first to tie up pier-side in Havana.
At least five shipping companies have applied for special licenses from
the U.S. State Department to relaunch overnight ferry service from ports
in Florida, according to shipping executives familiar with the matter.
The routes were popular with American tourists and weekend revelers
before sea links were closed off more than 50 years ago.
The Obama administration has eased sanctions and promises to normalize
relations with Havana. As part of that move, Washington has lifted some
travel restrictions that have long made Cuba practically off limits for
most American visitors.
The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls now allows visits
for a variety of things that once required special approval. Those
include trips by Americans to see family, professional and educational
travel, and travel related to humanitarian projects and sporting events.
Tourism is still prohibited, but shipping executives are betting that
those restrictions will fall away soon, too. Since the Obama
administration first started easing travel restrictions to Cuba several
years ago, approved travelers have been able to use several
Washington-sanctioned charter flights to the island. There are some
private ferry charters for humanitarian cargo and other approved
shipments, too, but passengers aren’t typically allowed aboard.
Alexander Panagopoulos, owner of Athens-based dry-bulk operator Arista
Shipping, whose family has managed for years a string of ferry companies
operating in Europe, has teamed up with American cruise-industry veteran
Bruce Nierenberg, to form Miami-based United Caribbean Lines. The
company has applied to Washington and Cuban authorities for approval of
a ferry-link license, Mr. Panagopoulos.
The State Department issues the license on the U.S. side because the
route is an international one. A State Department spokesperson didn’t
immediately respond to a request for comment.
The company hopes to launch a three-times-a-week, overnight service from
Miami to Havana. A one-way journey would be about 220-nautical-miles, or
roughly 253 miles. The company plans for a 6 p.m. departure from Miami,
and an arrival in Havana at 7 a.m.
At least three more Florida-based shipping companies and an affiliate of
a European ferry operator in Mexico have also applied to the State
Department for licenses, according to shipping executives with knowledge
of the matter. One of them, Florida-based CubaKat, says on its website
it hopes to start service as early as December.
UCL hopes to add a second vessel eventually, enabling the company to
offer a daily, round-trip service. Depending on the conditions of the
license, plans also include an alternative journey from Tampa, and a
shorter hop from Key West, 90 nautical miles from Havana.
“The growth opportunities are tremendous,” Mr. Panagoloupos said. “There
are 10 million people in Cuba and thousands of Americans that will be
offered a long-forgotten travel experience at about half the cost of an
State Department approval could limit what type of passengers any
service would be allowed to take, and Mr. Panagoloupos said UCL will be
flexible, and may not be able to carry tourists right away.
“The license will specify who and what can travel,” said Mr.
Panagopoulos. “In the beginning we expect to move passengers and cargo
including personal effects, household goods and humanitarian aid. Later
cars and trucks could also be allowed.”
Ferry travel to Cuba was popular during the 1940s and 1950s—before Fidel
Castro took over in a coup in 1959. Dozens of weekly sailings from
Florida brought in tourists and weekend revelers—often bringing their
own cars—to Havana’s legendary night clubs and casinos.
Sometimes the trips were as much fun as the vacation, with ferries
fitted out with bars and gambling tables. The sailings ended after
President John F. Kennedy imposed travel restrictions in February 1963,
shortly after the Cuban missile crisis.
“This is virgin territory with a lot of opportunities,” Mr. Panagopoulos
—Robert Wall contributed to this article.
Write to Costas Paris at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Destination Cuba: Ferry Operators Eye Florida to Havana Service
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