Port Tampa Bay Looks to Cuba for Cruise Business

File image courtesy Port Tampa Bay

By The Maritime Executive 2016-04-14 20:46:07

Like other Florida ports, Port Tampa Bay is known as a port of origin for cruise ships; and like its competitors, it is also interested in attracting business from the nascent Cuba cruise and ferry market. Port Tampa Bay has high hopes that it can win a portion of the planned traffic, just as it has won its share of the Caribbean cruise line departures. 

"There's no doubt Miami is No. 1, they have a critical mass of cruise lines there," said Edward Miyagishima, vice president of communications and external affairs at Port Tampa Bay, speaking to the Orlando Sentinel. "But there are a lot of benefits to Tampa. We're only 300 nautical miles away from Cuba. It's a straight shot."

The smaller boutique vessels for the Cuba trade are well-suited for the port, which cannot handle the latest, 5,000-berth cruise ships due to air draft restrictions - but has great amenities pierside for the passengers of smaller vessels.

In addition to marketing their facilities to cruise lines, Port Tampa Bay and the smaller ports nearby have been in talks with potential ferry operators for a service to Cuba. 

Havana Ferry Partners, based in Fort Lauderdale, says that it has access to terminals in Cuba already, and is in talks with a number of Florida ports, including Port Manatee, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West. 

Tampa Bay has the third largest population of Cuban-Americans, and air travel operators are also interested in servicing pent up demand for Cuba travel: both JetBlue and Southwest have expressed interest in departures from Tampa International to Havana. 

However, unlike airlines, there may be a legal hurdle for ferry and cruise operators looking to depart Florida for Cuban ports. Cuba bans its nationals from returning by sea; there are no such restrictions for passenger arrivals by air.

In planning the launch of its Fathom brand's service to Cuba this May, Carnival has attempted to comply with this requirement by prohibiting Cuban-born Americans from boarding its subsidiary's Havana-bound sailings. But on Tuesday, a group of Cuban-born Americans filed a class action lawsuit in Miami alleging that the company’s refusal to sell them tickets amounted to discrimination in a place of accommodation – a possible violation of the Civil Rights Act. Carnival has countered that it is trying to comply with Cuban law, and that it had petitioned Cuban authorities to allow Cuban-born passengers to arrive aboard its vessels. 

"Cuban-born individuals are allowed to fly to Cuba and we just want a similar process," said Carnival CEO Arnold Donald in an interview Tuesday. "We expressed that respectfully and appropriately [to Cuban authorities]." The firm has said that it is "Carnival's policy to obey the regulations and laws of the countries we sail to."