Looks like ferry service from Tampa to Mexico is going to make a comeback.
And if you're a little more patient, you might even see the first passenger ships to Cuba sail from Tampa since the days before the Castro regime.
Tampa port officials said Tuesday they are in serious discussions with two groups seeking to launch scheduled cruise ferry service to Cuba and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The first trips could start early next year, said port director Richard Wainio.
"They are moving forward very quickly," he said.
One of the companies is United Caribbean Lines, an Orlando area startup run by cruise industry veteran Bruce Nierenberg. Port officials wouldn't name the other group.
Cruises from the United States to Cuba are currently illegal. Nierenberg applied to the U.S. Treasury Department in 2009 for a license to run ferries to Cuba from Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale. A cruise industry veteran, Nierenberg said he's still awaiting an answer.
Last week, the federal government further relaxed travel restrictions by approving nine additional airports — including Tampa International Airport — as gateways for charter flights to Cuba.
If Cuban-American families and people on religious, educational and cultural exchanges can fly to Cuba, why not let them sail there overnight, asked Nierenberg.
U.S. Rep. Cathy Castor, D-Tampa agreed.
"Local retailers would benefit when Cuban-American families purchase goods that can be transported by ferry," she said. "I aid these families on a regular basis, and this would offer another travel option."
And a cheaper one at that. Round trip air fares from Miami, now Florida's only airport with Cuba flights, cost around $500. A round-trip ferry ticket from Tampa would run $300, with a cabin and meals included, said Nierenberg.
Oceangoing cruise ferries are a familiar part of the landscape for travelers in northern Europe and Mediterranean countries. The vessels combine modest cruise ship amenities — dining rooms, cabins and casinos — with the capabilities of vehicle-carrying ships.
Yucatan service would require the Tampa port to construct roll-on, roll-off ramps for cars and additional fenced areas for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to check vehicles and cargo. That would cost the port well under $1 million, said Wainio.
Nierenberg expects to run two round trips weekly to the Yucatan with a vessel that carries 1,500 passengers and 600 cars. Service will begin in the first half of next year, said Nierenberg.
United Caribbean will charge $350 for a round trip with a cabin and meals. The company hasn't decided how much it will cost to bring a car on the ferry.
The last Mexico ferry from Tampa, dubbed the Yucatan Express, left in 2003 after only one winter season. Business started slowly, with as few as 37 travelers in the ferry's 322 cabins on one 36-hour cruise.
Passenger loads picked up at the end. The last two cruises drew more than 500 passengers. The ferry's owners lost $5 million and didn't return the following winter.
Cuba ferries have a history here, too. As late as the early 1960s, P&O Cruises had two ships, the Florida and Cuba, which carried passengers and cars between Havana and Port Tampa near the southeast corner of the Interbay Peninsula, said Arthur Savage, owner of shipping agent A.R. Savage & Son.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.