Port Manatee on short list for Cuban ferry
The first United States cruise to Cuba will sail in May. U.S. commercial airlines will land on the island nation for the first time in more than 50 years as early as September. Next up in terms of connecting the nations in this era of normalization is a ferry. One bound for Cuba could be launching out of the Tampa Bay area Port Manatee area by summer. Photo from Flickr
Published: April 9, 2016
Updated: April 10, 2016 at 08:36 AM
TAMPA — Discussions are under way about carrying cargo and passengers to Havana from ports in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
But the maritime link appears even closer to reality through another local landing — Port Manatee.
Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale met with government officials in Cuba earlier this month and is optimistic it will be granted porting rights there in time to set sail as early as June, said CEO, Jorge Fernandez, a part-time Manatee County resident.
Port Manatee, an estimated eight hours to Havana by ferry, is on his short list of preferred U.S. landings.
“We are making excellent progress,” Fernandez said. “We have more meetings later this month. We have terminals lined up in Cuba and ports in the states ready.”
Havana is the primary Cuban city of choice, followed by Santiago.
Stateside, besides Port Manatee, Fernandez also is interested in sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West. “We will be prepared to service any of those for the initial start,” he said.
He could not yet confirm a schedule for the ferry service.
Meantime, leaders from both Port Tampa Bay and the Port of St. Petersburg confirmed they are also in negotiations with ferry operators interested in Cuba. One advantage Port Manatee holds over the others: It’s 90 minutes closer than St. Petersburg and three hours closer than Tampa.
Located in Palmetto, the port’s slogan is, “The Right Turn on Tampa Bay.”
It has been more than a year since American ferry operators began seeking to connect the U.S. and Cuba.
Still, service has not begun because the Cuban government hasn’t approved a U.S. ferry to use one of its ports.
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Ferries are expected to be a popular way to travel and take cargo to Cuba.
Passengers can enjoy the maritime journey for an estimated $290 per ticket, said Phil Richards, president of Havana Ferry Partners. They can carry baggage cheaper than on airlines and more of it, a plus for those bringing bulk goods to family or friends in Cuba. The first 40 to 60 pounds of baggage could be free with a small fee per pound after that, Richards said.
Importers may also prefer ferries to freighters. On a ferry, they can accompany their cargo to the Cuban port, there is less bureaucracy, and the cost may be cheaper for those shipping smaller weights.
Havana Ferry Partners owns one ferry, Richards said — a 40-meter, high-speed, wind-piercing Catamaran that can transport as many as 400 passengers but no bulk cargo. This ship will likely leave from Key West, Richards said.
He is looking at a few options for a vessel to serve Port Manatee but won’t make an investment until he gets porting approval from the Cuban government. The Port Manatee ferry likely will carry cargo mainly with some room for passengers.
“A ferry operation makes profits on the cargo and not on the passengers,” said Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras. “It would be a real convenience not just for our area but every county south to Collier.”
The Tampa area could indeed use such a service, said Bill Carlson, president of Tucker/Hall, a public relations agency that supports humanitarian and business missions in Cuba.
The area has no regularly scheduled cargo lines serving Cuba even though it is home to the third largest Cuban American population in the U.S. and to business and political leaders who want to create a gateway for commerce to the island nation. Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale and the Port of Jacksonville do have regular cargo service to Cuba. The Port of Miami does not.
Carlson said he wants to see Tampa ready for new cargo opportunities rather than play catch up.
“Tampa was historically the U.S. gateway to Cuba,” he said. “We need to be aggressive so that we won’t lose that position to Miami or some other city. Ferries provide an alternative transportation system for Americans going to Cuba and a way to ship goods needed in the emerging Cuban private retail sector.”
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Port Tampa Bay is in talks with ferries looking to connect this area to Cuba, said spokesman Andy Fobes. He would not name the operators but said Cuba had not yet approved them.
“We have the terminals and the appropriate on-site regulatory agencies and facilities already in place to handle passengers,” Fobes said, “and one day, once the embargo is lifted, cargo.”
It may not take a full lifting of the embargo for trade to reach a profitable volume.
The U.S. now allows its citizens to sell certain goods to Cubans — such as telecommunications, restaurant and agricultural equipment and construction supplies — as long it is used in the private sector. The holdup, as with the ferries, is for the Cuban government to sign off on it.
At least one local business is ready to act when that day comes.
Florida Produce of Tampa wants to operate a distribution warehouse in Havana for all American goods that can legally be sold on the island nation. Its owners, Manuel Fernandez and Mike Mauricio, presented a proposal in Cuba earlier this month to the Commerce Ministry and the Foreign Ministry.
They hope to receive a written agreement from Cuba by the end of June.
If so, depending on the condition of the warehouse space offered to them, they could be operating there early next year, said their attorney, Tim Hunt of Hill Ward Henderson.
In the past, Florida Produce has shipped agricultural products to Cuba through Port Jacksonville and Port Everglades.
If a ferry carried cargo to Cuba from a port close by, it would make economic sense to use the port for any goods produced within 200 miles of it, said Mauricio, the Florida Produce co-owner.
“You always want to use the closest port to keep freight cost down,” he said.
Initially, Florida Produce will focus on agriculture at its Havana warehouse because that is all Cuba is purchasing from American businesses now. But once the Cuban government allows its citizens to buy other goods, Florida Produce will seek to store it all.
“PVC pipes, automotive supply, lumber, restaurant equipment, construction material,” Mauricio said. “It can all be found or produced locally and then shipped locally. We just need that cargo ship or ferry locally.”
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Fernandez of Havana Ferries has no interest in Port Tampa at this time despite its size and historic connection to Cuba.
“It’s logistics,” Fernandez said. “Tampa is about a three-hour longer trip to Cuba and in the ferry business that’s three hours of extra time and three hours of extra fuel.”
Buqueras of Port manatee estimated that at optimal speed, the journey via ferry from Palmetto to Havana over the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida would take eight hours.
Fernandez said he would even consider the smaller Port of St. Petersburg over Port Tampa Bay because it is closer to Cuba.
St. Petersburg isn’t waiting, though.
Mayor Rick Kriseman confirmed city officials have spoken to ferry operators interested in using the port to host service to Cuba but he would not say which ones.
“We have been very open to things that connect us to that community,” Kriseman said. “We’ll see how this develops. I am glad someone is exploring the idea.”
Port St. Petersburg, owned by the city and marketed as a luxury yacht center under the name “Port St. Pete,” would likely host ferries carrying mainly passengers and with limited cargo space, said executive director Walt Miller. But that creates plenty of opportunities, Miller said.
“I don’t think it is a local business only but one with national potential,” Miller said.
A ferry might help in developing St. Petersburg-Cuba vacation packages, said Antonio C. Martinez II, chief operating officer of New York-based Cuban Strategic Partnerships Inc.
Travelers could join a tour group that includes a 24-hour to 48-hour educational trip to Havana, Martinez said, enabling their journey to fit within one of the 12 categories of Cuban travel the U.S. now permits. Others include scientific research and athletic competition.
A trip for tourism, such as a day at a Cuban beach, is forbidden under U.S. law.
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Still, such travels are a long way off, said Miller with Port St. Petersburg. Cuba barely has enough hotel rooms to handle its current record-breaking surge of tourists.
Accommodations are an issue Cuban leaders struggle to address, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The tourism industry will be tested further later this year when up to 110 daily U.S. commercial flights begin taking Americans to the island nation under an aviation arrangement recently signed by the two governments.
The infrastructure at Cuba’s ports will also be tested when U.S. cruise ships begin sailing there from Miami next month.
“The port facilities, cargo handling, security, customs, immigration — all of it will be under duress due to the cruises,” Kavulich said. “I don’t see Cuba moving forward on ferries until they are comfortable with the cruise ship operations.”
Port Tampa Bay and Port Manatee both hope to host a cruise to Cuba, though Kavulich said he believes it will be a while before Cuba is ready to accept these ships from multiple U.S. locations.
Another observer who follows Cuban business news said it may be a while before anyone launches ferry service to Cuba.
“Cubans have set aside the former container terminal in the Port of Havana for ferries and they’ve called on investors to build a terminal there,” said Johannes Werner, editor of the Sarasota-based online publication Cuba Standard.“Some of the U.S. operators argue they can start on a dime, bringing in mobile bridges, ramps and scanning devices. But the Cubans apparently don’t want that.”
Kavulich said he’s confident Cuba will provide porting rights to one U.S. ferry company this year.
The reason: It would solidify a commercial relationship between the two nations before the next U.S. president steps into the Oval Office in January 2017, making it harder for the next president to reverse the initiative by Barack Obama to normalize relations with Cuba.
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Kavulich believes Cuba will prefer a ferry sailing from a South Florida port, probably Miami, but Tampa might get the nod too as political gesture, he said — a thank you to the community for being proactive in the normalization of relations.
Mayor Kriseman sees no competition emerging among the local ports, saying the entire region would benefit from connectivity to Cuba if any port lands ferry service.
Still, he said, he does believe a personal relationship he has developed with the Cuban government could help the Port of St. Petersburg.
Kriseman has made two trips to the island nation over the past year and welcomed a Cuban delegation to his city in December to begin a cultural exchange program.
“That is the whole purpose of our trips,” he said. “We went there to build relationships, to let the government know who we were and that we were looking for opportunities to collaborate and I think we were successful.”
Carlson of Tucker/Hall said leaders from Port Tampa Bay need to make their first trip to Cuba soon, too.
“They should lead a delegation to Cuba immediately and start negotiating deals that will create an economic impact in Tampa Bay,” Carlson said. “An established government-to-government relationship is critically important for our area to engage in major trade with Cuba.
“When the U.S. economic blockade is lifted, businesses in Tampa Bay should be able to supply not only retail goods, but also medical and construction supplies, equipment, etc. A ferry service could help transport all of that.”
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