Cruises and commercial flights now link Tampa and Havana, but before the U.S. government approved either for such journeys, ferries had the nod.
Yet two years to the month since ferries were federally licensed to sail to the island nation, the vessels still have not received porting rights from the Cuban government.
And that wait won't be ending soon.
Ferries are not a priority, José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba's ambassador to the United States, told the Tampa Bay Times during a recent visit to St. Petersburg.
For now, he said, Cuba prefers to focus on expanding its cruise industry.
"I'm not saying we will not ever have ferries," Cabañas said. "We were saying two years ago we were not building hotels in Havana and now we are."
Officials with Port Tampa Bay and the Port of St. Petersburg said a year ago that ferry operators had reached out to them about offering service to Havana — Cuba's most popular destination. Fort Lauderdale's Havana Ferry Partners has been vocal about a desire to sail to Havana out of Port Manatee. In fact, CEO Jorge Fernandez said a launch date was imminent a year ago.
While cruises out of Tampa are currently porting in Havana for a day before moving on to another country, ferry passengers could remain in Cuba for an extended time.
A ferry trip from Port Manatee to Havana would take around eight hours. St. Petersburg to Havana is 90 minutes longer and from Tampa it could take up to 11 hours.
Ferries provide cruise-like comfort for these long trips. But unlike cruises, ferries can double as ships for bulk cargo, which would make it easier for a city like Tampa to trade with Cuba.
That latter benefit is one reason why Cuba has not approved porting rights for a ferry.
"A ferry is a different vessel than a cruise," the ambassador said. "Ferries bring cargo . . . A cruise liner is an airplane at sea."
The Port of Mariel — Cuba's largest maritime cargo facility and located less than 50 miles from Havana — has no plans to welcome passenger service, he said. And the Port of Havana, where cruise ships dock, is not currently set up to handle bulk cargo.
Johannes Werner, editor of Cuba Standard, an online publication based out of Sarasota that follows Cuban business, said there is an old unused container terminal in Havana that could be used for ferries.
He also said that U.S. ferry operators have expressed a willingness to bring the needed infrastructure to that port, such as cargo containers and bridges, to connect the vessel to the dock.
Due to dual cargo and passenger service that ferries offer, Cuba is losing out on an opportunity to make its bond with the United States harder to reverse, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
"The more activity allowed in Cuba that originates from the United States," he said, "the more commercial, economic and political support the Cuban government receives from these constituencies."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.