Port Manatee could land ferry service to Cuba

With Cuba ferry service suddenly opened up by the Obama administration this week, Port Manatee finds itself in a free-for-all competition with ports in Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Miami to carry passengers and their precious cargoes to Havana.

An obscure agency within the U.S. Treasury quietly issued at least four licenses to ferry boat operators on Tuesday, the first real change in the restrictions on passenger boat service since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now the ferry boat operators will each be trying to convince the Cuban government to select them for coveted dock space within the Port of Havana, and to swing the best deal they can with a port in Florida as well.

“They are all interested,” said Carlos Buqueras, executive director of Port Manatee, which is in the northwest corner of Manatee County, at the mouth of Tampa Bay. “There is a market for the east coast and a market for the west coast of Florida. When you look at the west coast, the closest port is Manatee, by far.”

It is likely that the first big ferry boat operation will get underway either in Port Everglades or the Port of Miami, because they have the existing infrastructure and because Southeast Florida has the largest population of this nation’s Cuban-Americans.

But the Tampa Bay area has the second largest population, and Port Manatee is two hours closer than the Port of Tampa by ship, has acres of space for parking, and has easy-on-easy-off access to Interstate 75.

Photo: The Regal Empress cruise ship as it appeared when it operated out of Port Manatee. The port is already set up to accept cruise ships, which could help it accommodate a ferry service to Cuba.

(From: Herald Tribune)

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