With its collection of classic automobiles cruising streets flanked by centuries-old buildings, Cuba often evokes images of the past among Americans.
What Patrick Allman saw during his first trip to the island nation was the future.
"Cuba wants to partner with the greater Tampa area," said Allman, a member of the Port Tampa Bay governing board. "I believe it will be economically beneficial to the port and our overall economy."
Ferries, cruise ships and cargo freighters should be sailing before long between Tampa and Cuba, he said. The port already is in discussions with a ferry company interested in carrying passengers and freight to Havana.
Allman's Oct. 11 visit to Havana was the first by a sitting member of the port board since President Barack Obama announced an initiative nearly two years ago to normalize relations with Cuba.
Allman was not representing the board when he joined a delegation of local maritime leaders led by Bill Carlson, CEO of Tampa public relations agency TuckerHall.
But he did present himself to Cuban leaders as a board member interested in learning what potential the island holds for Port Tampa Bay.
"The port is our area's biggest economic engine and I took an oath to support that. We cannot afford to leave a single economic stone unturned."
Allman believes his visit to the island, where he met with the U.S. ambassador and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will help accelerate a pending request for ferry service to Tampa. He would not identify the company applying.
Tampa shipping agent Arthur Savage of A.R. Savage & Son, another member of the recent delegation, is optimistic, too.
"This trip created momentum," he said. "A port board member saw what Cuba has to offer."
Allman now wants to communicate to Port Tampa Bay tenants that the port is "very amenable to itineraries that include Cuba" and that they can feel free to seek out business opportunities there.
One port tenant, Carnival, now offers cruises to Cuba from Miami
It's too early to say whether Carnival will add Cuba to its destinations from Tampa, spokesman Roger Frizzell said, but the cruise line is seeking approval for more ships to Cuba.
"Tampa is certainly an attractive option," Frizzell said.
Port Tampa Bay faces competition in the race to become a maritime gateway to Cuba.
Port Manatee at the southern end of Tampa Bay is the preferred choice for Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale, which may already be close to acquiring porting approval in Cuba.
Havana Ferry Partners has a meeting soon at the Cuban Embassy in D.C. that may clarify a timeline, said Phil Richards, company president.
Still, with close business and cultural ties to the island nation that date back more than a century, Tampa is near the front of the line for a new maritime connection, Allman said.
Those ties include a trade relationship largely cut off by the U.S. embargo on Cuba in the early 1960s, and Ybor City, the Latin district favored by Cuban freedom fighter José Martí as he planned his nation's War of Independence against Spain.
Still, New Orleans also played host to Martí, traded with Cuba before the embargo — and is trading with Cuba again today.
In June, Carnival said a cruise from New Orleans to Cuba is on the horizon. And in early October, a Port of New Orleans delegation that included the Louisiana governor traveled to Cuba and signed a memorandum to grow their relationship.
That Port Tampa Bay has yet to send an official delegation to Cuba frustrates some local leaders who support better relations. But Allman said port leaders are very interested in the market.
He briefed Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson and other senior staff members on opportunities he saw while touring the Port of Havana, the cruise port, as well as the container ship center at Cuba's Port of Mariel.
"They were very excited," Allman said.
Port Tampa Bay has always maintained it is "Cuba ready," he said. "I think recent actions really needed to happen first."
Those actions include executive orders from the White House eliminating a rule prohibiting any ship that ports in Cuba from porting in the United States for 180 days. That's a deal-breaker for the cruise and ferry industries and impedes steady trade.
President Obama lifted the rule for cruises and ferries in mid 2015 and for cargo freighters earlier this month.
With these developments in mind, the Tampa City Council agree last Thursday to draft a resolution supporting Port Tampa Bay as a U.S. gateway for world trade through Port of Mariel.
Introducing the proposal, council member Yvonne Capin cited recent comments to the Tampa Bay Times by TC Mariel, operator of the Cuban port's container shipment center. TC Mariel said it hopes to use Port Tampa Bay as a transshipment center because of its proximity to Orlando — home to distribution hubs serving all of Florida.
Allman plans to return to Cuba, possibly this year.
"We're trying to lay the groundwork," he said. "We're building a relationship."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.