At least two companies have received U.S. government approval to operate ferries between Florida and Cuba, executives confirmed Tuesday.
The companies have negotiated to run services out of Port Manatee. The ferry services would be the first approved to the Communist-led island 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. One year ago, the company CEO met in Bradenton with Rep. Vern Buchanan, Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras and port authority Commissioner Larry Bustle to plan the start of service.
At the time, it was thought a ferry could start runs by mid-summer 2014. License approval took months longer, but Havana Ferry Partners officials said they were pleased nonetheless.
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"I'm very excited because this is a historical event in U.S.-Cuba relations," managing partner Leonard Moecklin Sr. said after receiving official word of approval from the Treasury and Commerce departments.
Moecklin said his company will begin its first ferry service to Cuba from Key West. A ferry from Port Manatee to serve the Tampa Bay region would come later.
Buqueras said the port has yet to sign an agreement with any ferry company serving
Cuba. The Manatee County Port Authority must first approve such an agreement. The port would also need to modify its existing cruise terminal to accommodate ferries.
Buqueras said the ferry business will add to Cuba service already provided by airlines with an added benefit. Those buying a ferry ticket can take cargo along for the ride for little or no extra cost.
"For some, this could take the place of the plane," he said.
Baja Ferries USA, a venture affiliated with United Americas, was also approved to provide ferry service to Cuba. It is 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 Baja Ferries executive Joe Hinson. The company already provides ferry service in Mexico and between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Carol Whitmore, chairwoman of the Port Manatee authority, said she believes the authority will vote to run a ferry if it attracts a licensed operator.
"I think that Port Manatee welcomes the relationship," she said.
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 Barack 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. Only Congress can lift the embargo.
Havana Ferry's Moecklin said his approval was granted under certain conditions. The ferry must go nonstop to Cuba, cannot carry vehicles and can carry only authorized travelers for family visits and religious and educational activities.
Havana Ferry Partners hopes to launch ferry service between Key West and Havana within weeks, possibly with a 200-passenger vessel, Moecklin said.
The company also plans to add overnight ferry service later from Fort Lauderdale and Miami to Havana using a larger vessel for 300 to 500 passengers, Moecklin said.
At least five companies have applied for licenses to operate ferry service between Florida and Cuba.
-- Wire material was used in this report