Ferry may someday connect Manatee to Cuba, officials suggest

skennedy@bradenton.comNovember 16, 2012 

MANATEE -- Ferry service between Port Manatee and Cuba is one possibility should diplomatic relations be normalized between the United States and the island nation to its south, officials said Thursday.

Ferries may someday ply the waters between Manatee and Cuba, carrying both passengers and cargo, Port Executive Director Carlos Buqueras said Thursday after a meeting of the Manatee County Port Authority.

Havana is located about 300 miles south of the port, which is between Palmetto and the Hillsborough County line.

The launch of ferry service was a topic Buqueras discussed recently during a trip he made to Spain, he said.

"The operator for Havana is located in Barcelona," said Buqueras, who later explained that the Port of Havana is operated jointly by a Spanish company and the Cuban government.

"We want to make sure opportunities to sail from here are welcome at the other end," he told the port au

thority board, comprised of Manatee County commissioners.

Commissioner Donna Hayes said it was an "opportune time to start working on this, this is not something that happens overnight."

"A ferry service makes a lot of sense, it makes sense at Port Manatee, especially with the opening of Cuba, eventually," said Commissioner Joe McClash.

"This port stands to gain so much by a ferry operation," McClash said.

Right now, travel to Cuba is difficult because the U.S. lacks diplomatic relations with the island nation. The U.S. cut ties to Cuba after communists took over its government in 1959. The U.S. instituted an economic embargo, which makes it illegal for U.S. companies to do most kinds of business there.

Any changes that render Cuba more accessible will benefit Florida, because of its large Cuban population, said Jason Bittner, director of Tampa's Center for Urban Transportation Research, affiliated with the University of South Florida.

But when asked about a prognosis for a ferry business, he demurred.

"Whether a ferry service could make any money or not, I wouldn't be able to pass judgment on that right now," he said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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