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Enthusiasm grows for daily Florida-Cuba ferry service
CubaNews / October 2010

By Larry Luxner

Regularly scheduled ferry service between South Florida and the Port of Havana — commonplace before 1959 — could soon be a reality, now that Cuban-Americans enjoy unrestricted travel to the island.

“It is legal to operate ferries in addition to charter flights,” said Miami attorney Timothy Ashby. “OFAC regulations actually allow vessels to carry licensed travelers to Cuba. I represent a potential ferry operator. I’ve done a lot of research on this.”

Ashby estimated that regular ferry service would require at least $10-15 million in investment, not to mention infrastructure improvements on the Cuban side. And with Cuban-American air travel to the island increasing steadily, Ashby thinks regular ferry service is an idea whose time has finally come.

“Nobody thought they could make any money with a ferry, but flights are expensive, and airlines charge a lot for cargo,” he said. “I don’t think the money has been there, but the money’s there now.”

Daniel Berrebi, CEO of Paris-based Unishipping SAS, wants to be the first to offer such a service. Unishipping’s United Americas Shipping Co. subsidiary has hired Washington attorney Robert Muse to obtain an OFAC license to do just that.

“We need to start with something, so we believe it’s a good idea to start with the people who are already authorized to travel,” Berrebi explained. “As you know, the Cubans were initially not very receptive to the idea of a ferry, so it was nice to see that one of the 19 suggestions the government recently made to the Obama administration [for improving bilateral relations] was the establishment of a ferry service between the U.S. and Cuba.”

Yet it’s still illegal under Cuban law for anyone born in Cuba to enter the island via sea, according to Miami attorney Antonio Zamora, though he said that’s likely to change soon.

Berrebi says the South Florida exile community is “crazy about the idea” because mile for mile, ferries are far cheaper than airplanes.

In addition, he said, many elderly Cubans are afraid of flying — even if the Miami-Havana trip takes only 50 minutes.

“Around the world, ferries are always more competitive than airlines, because the cost per mile is only 30-35% of the cost of flying. Airlines today make all their money on luggage. They charge $1-2 a pound, and a lot of people take to Cuba computers, TVs and even food,” he said, estimating that passengers carry an average 40-80 pounds in their checked baggage, pushing the cost of a round-trip flight to well over $600.

By contrast, a round-trip ferry ticket between Fort Lauderdale and Havana would cost less than $200 including luggage, said Berrebi. The trip would take just under 12 hours, leaving Port Everglades at 8 p.m. and arriving at the dock in Havana by 8:00 the next morning.

Asked if the Cuban government has the capacity to receive big ferry ships, Berrebi said: “Luckily, they lost all their cruise vessels calling in Havana after Carnival bought Costa Cruise Lines. So no cruise ships are calling in Havana these days. They have two nice berths available in Old Havana, and we might be able to use one of these two docks. We are trying to get confirmation from the Cubans.”

Baja Ferries, one of Unishipping’s affiliated companies, operates a popular and profitable ferry service between La Paz and Mazatlan, Mexico. The overnight trip covers 230 miles in 11 hours — almost exactly the length of a Port Everglades-Havana run.

Berrebi said Fort Lauderdale, not Miami, would be his choice of departure for the new service — which is fine with Carlos Buqueras, director of business development at Port Everglades.

“Because of the connectivity between Fort Lauderdale airport, which is only a few hundred yards away, and the fact that I-595 and I-75 end here at the port and there’s a seamless transition, the potential is probably very significant. Not only would we have connectivity from the water side, but the ability to deliver those passengers to ferry ships is unsurpassed,” said Buqueras.

“While we await the eventual resumption of trade, if and when it happens, the fact remains that ferries offer passenger greater flexibility [than air], and added benefits like the ability to carry a greater amount of cargo,” he said.

“We have been in dialogue with a number of foreign ferry operators that also operate in Europe, and we have the capacity in terminals that would emulate the terminals used in Mediterranean routes, like between Naples and Barcelona, Málaga and Tangier, and Marseille to Corsica,” Buqueras told us.

And that’s just a prelude for regular cruise-ship passengers, who will undoubtedly flock to Cuba once all U.S. controls are lifted.

“We have more terminals, and we’re about to have more passengers, than the Port of Miami,” said Buqueras. “Carnival will guarantee us 1.7 million to two million passengers a year for the next 15 years, and Royal Caribbean is guaranteeing us two million per year over the next 10 years. These numbers will make us the largest cruise port in the world in the next year and a half.”

By 2011, Port Everglades will be handling around 4.3 million passengers — up from 3.2 million in 2009. By then, at least a few thousand of them could be Cuba-bound.

“We envision a couple of scenarios,” said Buqueras. “One would be part of an itinerary that substitutes one island for another, so in lieu of going to one particular island, you go to Cuba instead. Or you have Cuba as a separate itinerary, calling on Santiago de Cuba and Havana and maybe the Caymans. Or you could have one ship that just goes back and forth between here and Havana.”

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