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CUBA: The ferries are coming

A Balearia ocean-going ferry operating in the Mediterranean.

Carnival is the first US-based cruise line to win approval to sail to Havana, but any one of several sea-going ferries may beat them to the island. The race is on.

Four years ago, I told you that “lifting the US trade embargo against Cuba would open up a whole new class of cruise travel for Americans — ocean-going ferries. The possibilities are mind-blowing.”

Let the mind-blowing begin.

I was about to blog the announcement that United Caribbean Lines planned to start operating cruise ferries between Miami and Havana as early as this coming fall when I found out that they’re just the latest of a string of ferry operators setting sail from Cuba.

As of this writing, Baja Ferries USA, Havana Ferry Partners, CubaKat and Balearia all have preceded United Caribbean in seeking permission to run ferries between Florida and Cuba.

As today’s generation likes to say: It’s on.

Baja Ferries USA is the US subsidiary of the Mexican company that operates ferries between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland. Balearia is a Spanish shipping firm that already runs ferries between the Spanish mainland the islands in the Mediterranean, as well as between Florida and the Bahamas.
The rest are American start-ups that have yet to put a hull in the water.

Interestingly, while Washington seems to be issuing US-Cuba ferry licenses as fast as they can be printed, it’s the Cuban government that seems to be in no hurry to do the same.

I don’t know if this is a political ploy by Havana or if the Cuban bureaucracy was just caught unprepared for an avalanche of license requests. Either way, the expectation on our side of the Florida Straits is that the go-ahead is coming, and coming soon.

This time next year, if not sooner, travelers may be arriving in Havana harbor in rows of comfortably reclining seats not unlike those of airliners — except that the ferry seats will probably be wider and have a lot more legroom.

For those looking for both comfort and privacy, the larger ferries will come with cabins, available for a surcharge.

Some of the ferry companies plan to use traditional V-hull ocean-going ferries, large enough to carry not only hundreds of passengers, but cars and even 18-wheelers.

Others are talking of making the daily run using high-speed catamarans featuring thin, narrow, wave-piercing twin hulls that permit vessels weighing thousands of tons to cross long stretches of ocean at ludicrous speeds.

At the very least, this means that Americans wanting to visit Cuba will have two cruise options — the full-blown resort-at-sea cruise ship experience with multiple port calls, and the quicker, more direct ferry cruise, with only one destination and fewer frills.

Please note that when it comes to the ferries, I said fewer frills, not none. The larger conventional ferries are likely to feature many of the amenities found on regular cruise ships — bars and restaurants, shopping, even swimming pools and casinos.

And at least one of them is likely to be calling on Havana before Carnival’s new fathom cruise line arrives next year, even though Carnival got Cuba’s go-ahead first.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

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