Four times a week, Mexican and American tourists will sail between Tampa and the Yucatan Peninsula starting in November.
Cars, RVs and cargo ranging from perishable foods to garments will ride below in the hold of the M/V Scotia Prince on the 36-hour trip across the Gulf of Mexico.
Scotia Prince Cruises of Portland, Maine, said Thursday it will go ahead with plans for a five-month trial run beginning Nov. 22. If the service called the "Yucatan Express" is profitable, the company will buy a new ferry that will run year-round, owner Matthew Hudson said.
The ferry has 320 cabins and can carry 1,100 passengers for cruises it makes between Maine and Nova Scotia from spring through fall.
The company expects to carry no more than 640 passengers on each of the two weekly round trips between Tampa and port of Progreso, near Merida, and Cancun, Hudson said. But he said he can only guess at this point how many will be Mexican visitors to Florida and the amount and type of cargo.
"It's much more complicated than a cruise ship," he said. "It's like a combination of an airline, a railroad and a cruise ship. We have a lot to learn from the market."
Unlike cruise ship passengers who frequently don't spend much time or money locally, Mexican visitors on a cruise ferry should make a significant economic impact, Tampa port director George Williamson said.
"With the cruise ferry we become a border town like Laredo (Texas)," he said. "They will go to the Brandon mall, go to Busch Gardens, go to the doctor here. These guys will spend money in our community."
The service was formally announced in Orlando at a meeting of the Gulf of Mexico State Accord, a business and government group that promotes trade among American and Mexican state on the gulf.
"Saving 2,800 miles or round-trip driving between Merida and Tampa . . . will launch dynamic new economic opportunities for Florida and Mexican businesses," said Katherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state and president of the group.
The cheapest one-way passenger fares will be $100, not including port charges. Scotia Prince also will offer packages including hotels and bus tours. A complete schedule of fares and fees for vehicles and cargo will be available soon, company officials said.
The Scotia Prince has a restaurant, coffee shop, casino and a lounge with live floor shows.
The vessel will be familiar to some local travelers. In November 1998, American Viking Lines of Tampa chartered the Scotia Prince from its previous owner and began sailing to the Yucatan.
Business started slow, with one early cruise arriving in Tampa with just 13 passengers. The numbers picked up toward the end, but American Viking ran out of money and stopped sailing after seven weeks.
Scotia Prince is committed to sail through May and is prepared to lose money during the trial run, Hudson said. The previous operators were novices in the American market, he said, while Scotia Prince has been in the cruise ferry business 30 years.
"We know how to do it, how to advertise and market it," Hudson said. "I expect to lose money for the first months. All I want is to see growth by the end of the season and my passengers be happy."
The port will pay about $250,000 to build temporary facilities for federal inspection agencies and agreed to pay $50,000 for marketing the new service if Scotia Prince puts up at least $100,000.
The company will begin accepting reservations soon. Customers can learn more about the service by calling 866-466-3935 or visiting the Web sites www.yucatanexpress.com or www.scotiaprince.com.
_ Steve Huettel can be reached at huettelsptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.