Yesterday, the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the agency responsible for regulating business with countries under American sanctions, approved licenses for at least four Florida-based ferry companies to begin operating direct passenger lines to Cuba. So far, Airline Brokers Co., Baja Ferries, Havana Ferry Lines, and the United Caribbean Lines have all announced that they received licenses, while CubaKat believes it will be licensed soon. One of the first major, concrete developments in the nascent normalization of US-Cuban relations, these ferry routes have the potential to radically accelerate travel and trade between the two countries.
Before the 1959 revolution in Cuba, daily ferries ran frequently across the Florida Straits, a waterway just 90 miles wide at its narrowest points. But the initiation of a US embargo against Cuba in 1960 effectively killed these routes. Although the embargo never fully eliminated business or transit between the two nations, the progressively tightening sanctions created a series of hurdles that made regular ferry routes functionally impossible.
The new ferry lines follow January's easing on travel restrictions and President Obama's December announcement of his intentions to normalize US-Cuban relations. Although only Congress can fully lift the embargo on Cuba, Obama and his team have initiated a series of high-level talks with Cuban President Raúl Castro, outlining a series of mostly abstract and theoretical points for cooperation and discussion (ranging from how to open mutual embassies to disaster preparedness collaborations). But over April, this thaw has yielded increasingly concrete results.
Members of Congress proposed legislation to ease agricultural imports, allow US banks to issue credit to Cuban companies to buy American goods, and end financial restrictions on business deals between the two nations. Raúl Castro and Obama met at an international summit—the first two Cuban and American heads of state to meet in over five decades—and soon after, the US announced its intention to remove Cuba from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Numerous business delegations have worked out deals on future collaboration or, like Air B&B, even launched operations in Cuba. One New York trade delegation even resulted in yesterday's announcement of the first regular flights by a major air carrier, JetBlue, between the US and Cuba starting on July 3.
Related: Motherboard looks into the science of Diana Nyad's swim from Cuba to Florida.
Although new ferry lines may seem minor compared to regular flights and potential trade deals, these routes will be a major boon to the ease and scale of transit and informal trade. Existing charter flights run at least $400 per round trip, and baggage overages for those bringing goods back to Cuba bump up the price substantially. The ferries promise to reduce those costs, increase transit regularity and scale, and build a 200-plus-pound-per-person cargo capacity into ticket prices. This could make the ferry lines functionally the largest everyday development in normalization to date—and it certainly sends a clear signal that, no matter the attempts in Congress to retighten travel restrictions and stymie legislation easing trade and travel, real change between the two nations is coming.
None of these ferry routes are open as of yet. Operators still need permission from Cuba, which they're currently seeking and optimistic about. Yet operators are already discussing deals with Florida ports all the way from Port Canaveral in central Florida to Key West at the southern tip of the peninsula. Most lines seem to believe that they will be able to charge between $250 to just over $300 for round trips, carrying up to 2,000 to 3,000 passengers per week in boats able to accommodate between 200 to 1,000 people. Ferry operators are hopeful that they'll be able to have their lines operational in a matter of months. Joseph Hinson, the vice president of Baja Ferries, estimates that if everything goes perfectly in Cuba and with the ports we could see lines operational by September or October.
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