The ferry services would be the first approved to Cuba since Washington imposed its embargo more than 50 years ago.
Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale obtained approval five years after applying for a license.
“I’m very excited,” managing partner Leonard Moecklin said after receiving official word of its approval from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security.
Also approved was United Americas of Miami, a venture developed by former cruise ship executive Bruce Nierenberg. It has been looking to launch overnight service to Cuba possibly three times a week and has held meetings with Port Everglades, Port Manatee and other Florida seaports.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” said United Americas executive Joe Hinson on Tuesday. The company already is active in ferry service in Mexico and between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
The ferries can carry authorized U.S. travelers to Cuba including people in 12 categories who no longer need a license in advance to visit, since President Obama this year eased restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.
Americans are still not allowed to travel to Cuba for tourism under the terms of the U.S. embargo on Cuba that remains in place. Only Congress can lift the embargo.
Havana Ferry’s Moecklin said his approval was granted under certain conditions. For example, the ferry must go nonstop to Cuba, cannot carry vehicles and can carry only authorized travelers. Those include visitors in the 12 categories including family visits, religious and educational activities, among others.
Havana Ferry Partners hopes to launch ferry service between Key West and Havana within weeks, possibly with a 125 to 150 passenger vessel built by Damen Shipyard and called Sea Axe, Moecklin said. .
The company also may add overnight ferry service later from Fort Lauderdale and Miami to Havana using a larger vessel that could carry 300 to 500 passengers, Moecklin said. Plus, it’s eyeing the port of Tampa Bay as a gateway for Cuba.
At least five companies have applied for licenses to operate ferry service between Florida and Cuba.