Ferry operators eye Florida to Havana service

 havana-live-ferry-key-west-havanaThe City of Havana car ferry in its slip while waiting to take Americans from Havana to Key West, Fla., on Jan. 4, 1959. The ferry service used to be popular with American tourists who were keen to visit Havana’s legendary night clubs and casinos. Photo: AP

HAVANA,  April 24,  (By COSTAS PARIS)  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 air ticket.”

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.