It won't be long until passengers will be able to take a ferry to Cuba from Miami, an idea that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago in a city that's home to Cuban exiles who fled from the Castro regime. The Obama administration approved licenses last year to companies that want to run ferries to Cuba. Several are interested. Still, it came as a surprise last week when the port of Miami said it's considering building a new ferry terminal on land that had been slated for development.
"For me, it seems to be a very logical opportunity," Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez says. "There is interest."
There was criticism from some in the Cuban-American community, but compared to the firestorm anything involving Cuba has often sparked in the past, it's a sign that in Miami, times have changed.
Still, Gimenez was sensitive to suggestions that Miami-Dade County is essentially preparing to do business with Cuba. "We don't do business with countries," Gimenez says. "We do business with carriers. Where the carriers go is where the carriers go. But we don't have a ferry terminal and that may be a good use for that property."
In Miami, the most controversial part of plans for the new ferry terminal is where it will be located. The location endorsed by Gimenez is an unused portion of the port that's also eyed by developers. David Beckham once pitched it as a site for a soccer stadium.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez who, like Gimenez, is Cuban-American, agrees that building a ferry terminal at the port makes a lot of sense but like most other elected officials here, he is not yet ready to give trade and travel to Cuba his stamp of approval. "It's a decision to be made by the governments in question and not by the county," Suarez says. But like the mayor, he says a ferry terminal for the port makes sense. "We don't want to get left behind if ferry service is in fact started," he says.
Several other ports in Florida besides Miami have also expressed interest in ferries to Cuba, including Tampa and Key West. Since 2009, when the Obama administration relaxed rules for Cuban-Americans traveling to the island, the political outlook among elected officials in Miami has changed dramatically, says Robert Muse, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who represents Baja Ferries USA.
"Go to Miami airport," he says. "You'll see at least 10 flights a day are going to Cuba at this point. I don't think that any local politician wants to get in the way of enhanced opportunities for family travel to and from Cuba."
About a half million Americans, mostly Cuban-Americans, visit the island each year. Ferry operators say their fares will be competitive with airlines and that they will offer something not available on jets: cheap rates for cargo. For Cuban-Americans carrying everything from clothing, flat screen televisions and car parts to the island, ferry service will be a game changer.
United Caribbean Lines is another of the companies jockeying to provide ferry service to Cuba. By air, cargo is very expensive. On ferries, says Bruce Nierenberg, the company's president, "We can give them a wire bin that holds a thousand pounds of stuff for a hundred bucks." In Europe, Nierenberg says, ferries make much of their money by carrying cargo. Once ferry service to Cuba begins, he says Cuban-Americans who take a 12-hour ferry ride to the island can take all kind of goods with them.
Ferry companies say after initial enthusiasm, Cuban officials have put approval of regular service between the U.S. and the island on hold but that action could come by the end of the year.