TAMPA — The U.S. government's decision this week to allow ferries to take people to Cuba and back could open two doors for the Tampa Bay region.
First, Tampa would be a natural home port for ferry service to Cuba once that nation agrees to receive U.S. ferries. The city has a large Cuban-American population and strong ties to the island nation. Many see it as the future center of U.S. relations with Cuba.
"We all know that Port Tampa Bay is basically a straight line to Havana," Tampa City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said.
Second, it would introduce a brand new transportation industry to the bay area. Passenger ferries are used widely around the world, and some believe the ferry business could one day take off in the United States — and especially in Tampa.
United Caribbean chairman and CEO Bruce Nierenberg has spent years trying to establish a ferry network in the Caribbean. He hopes to one day launch service from Tampa to Cuba and Mexico.
"The degree of unawareness about the ferry industry is rampant in the U.S.," he said. "When people understand how much fun it is, it's going to be a huge industry and Tampa will be in the middle of it."
The Tampa Port Authority is well-positioned to receive ferries because it can handle passenger vessels. It has cruise port terminals, customs services and security protocols already in place.
"It's our understanding that both nations have to authorize the service," port spokesman Edward Miyagishima said. "When that happens, the port will be extremely well-positioned to serve as a gateway."
Patrick Allman, who sits on the port's governing board, was enthusiastic about the prospects of ferry service from Tampa to Cuba and elsewhere. He said ferries are being incorporated into the agency's strategic plan for the future of Port Tampa Bay.
"They're an absolute component," Allman said. "We believe we're going to be in the ferry business, and we're looking at multiple locations where we can put them."
Ferries could also be an important backstop for the uncertain future of Tampa's cruise ship industry.
The massive cruise ships of the future won't be able to pass under the Sunshine Skyway bridge to reach the cruise terminals in downtown Tampa.
The more mega-ships that come on line in the decades to come, the less likely cruise companies will still use the kinds of ships that can sail Tampa Bay.
But passenger ferries — overnight ferries with staterooms that could hold up to 1,500 passengers — will have no problem sailing beneath the bay's iconic bridge.
Allman doesn't see the cruise industry ever disappearing from Tampa, but as fewer cruise ships are able to dock there, ferries could make up for that lost economic output.
"I think Tampa will be a player in a ferry system that serves the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico," he said.
The U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce on Tuesday authorized a handful of American companies to send ferries to Cuba. But those ferry operators also need the assent of Cuban authorities. That government must also decide where they can dock and how frequently.
But Nierenberg believes those decisions will be made in a matter of months.
"Until the arrangements are completed and arranged with the Cuban government, no one can say what schedules they will use or what ports they can use," he said. "It'll be frustrating for another 30 to 60 days."
President Barack Obama has eased travel restrictions and improved relations with Cuba in recent months. But the five-decade U.S. embargo still prohibits Americans from visiting Cuba as tourists or doing business there. Travel is limited to cultural, educational and humanitarian purposes, and cargo is limited to food and medicine.
Two authorized ferry operators have expressed interest in establishing Tampa-to-Cuba service: United Caribbean and Havana Partners.
Baja Ferries USA vice president Joe Hinson, whose company also got a ferry license from the United States, said it is more focused on the Port of Miami and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
"The reason Tampa is not one of the first choices is strictly because of the logistics," Hinson said. "It would be a much longer crossing than it would be to Miami."
Miami would be two hours closer to Cuba than Tampa, but both trips require an overnight voyage. Ferries would depart Florida in the evening and arrive in Cuba early the next morning.
But travel by ferry might be more popular than flying, because operators say it would be cheaper. Hinson estimated that a round-trip ferry ticket could cost around $250, about half of what airfare to Cuba can cost.
Cuban-Americans also fly to Cuba bearing heavy packages for relatives. But ferry operators say they would charge much less to transport that cargo.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.