Balearia ferry operator gets US yes to serve Cuba

havana-live-BahamasExpressHAVANA,  July 2  The Spanish company that operates ferries from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas is one step closer to adding service to Cuba. Spain’s Balearia said it received approval from the U.S. Commerce Department to operate ships between Florida and Cuba.

It also expects authorization from the U.S. Treasury Department “in the coming weeks” to carry passengers between the two neighboring nations, a news release said.
Pending approval from Cuba, ferry service between the U.S. and Cuba could start as soon as fall, attorneys familiar with U.S.-Cuba business have said.

Balearia has been offering fast ferry service between Port Everglades and Freeport on Grand Bahama Island since 2011 under the brand name Bahamas Express.
For Cuba service, it plans to operate two routes to Havana: a high-speed vessel from Key West and a ferry from Port Everglades, the news release said.

No further details were specified. U.S. authorities in May licensed at least six companies to offer ferry service to Cuba, the first such approvals in five decades.
Ferry service had been cut amid tensions between the two governments. It is being restored in line with restoration of diplomatic ties between the two neighbors. The ferry companies plan to offer trips that cost less than charter flights and allow more baggage free.

Many Cuban-Americans haul down hefty supplies for family homes and new private businesses. Also licensed are Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale, Baja Ferries of Miami, United Caribbean Lines of Greater Orlando, Airline Brokers Co. of Miami, America Cruise Ferries of Puerto Rico and International Port Corp. of Miami, among others.

The U.S. embargo on Cuba still bans Americans from leisure tourism in Cuba. But Americans can visit the island for 12 categories of “purposeful” travel including family visits, government business, professional research, performances, plus educational, religious and humanitarian activities.

Balearia is looking to serve Cuba as part of a broader international expansion. This year, the company expects to transport more than 130,000 passengers between the U.S. and the Bahamas, up 25 percent from last year.
It estimates that revenues from international operations in the Caribbean and Mediterranean regions will account for about 15 percent of its total business.
In five years, Balearia aims to derive about 50 percent of its revenue from international business, perhaps including Puerto Rico-Dominican Republic service as well, the company said.

Balearia now has 23 ships and employs more than 1,000 people worldwide.