08/30/13 - Bradenton Herald - Cruises, ferry to Havana from Port Manatee a possibility
MANATEE -- Cuba is a China-sized economic opportunity for Florida, said the
Port of Manatee executive director Thursday, and part of the market might
come in the form of cruise and ferry service from here to Havana one day.
When the federal government rules it's OK to head to Cuba by boat, Manatee
County will be ready to pounce, said Carlos Buqueras, port executive
"We want to be at the forefront of these opportunities to rebuild Cuba,"
Buqueras shared with an audience at a Manatee Chamber of Commerce
breakfast. "Of course, we don't know when it's going to open, but we can't
wait to get ready."
The U.S. Department of Treasury granted charter flights to Cuba in 2011
from eight airports, including Tampa and Miami, yet the cruise and ferry
industry are still waiting for federal approval of waterways travel.
Buqueras said he spoke to ferry operators that can handle 2,000 passengers
plus 1,000 cars to take people from Manatee to Havana.
"It's only a 10-hour transit between Port of Manatee and Havana," he said.
"You get on at night at 6 o'clock,
have a nice dinner on the ship, take a nap or go to the nightclub or go on
the deck and take in the breeze, and by the next morning you're in the
center of Havana."
The daily ferry service could be offered twice a day, he said.
"We want to make sure these ferry companies are aware of what we can do; at
the same time, develop a significant opportunity to supply Cuba from here
creating hundreds of jobs again," Buqueras said.
Buqueras had mentioned the possibility of ferry service to Havana during a
Port Authority meeting last November, but now is revealing more details and
batting around the idea of adding a cruise operator.
Buqueras has begun discussions with the Havana port operator, which is a
shared operation between Cuban government and a Spanish company.
Although the cruise business can be finicky, Buqueras has hopes for Cuba.
"I think the industry is very positive and we want to grow in that area,"
he said. "Cuba is a tremendous opportunity, obviously. It's going to be a
market unto itself, and I think it's going to be both cruise and ferry."
Florida is considered the cruise capitol of North America, thanks to the
traffic and the numerous corporate and administrative offices for cruise
operators. Nearly 14 million people embarked on a cruise at one of
Florida's seven seaports in fiscal 2011-12, according to the Florida
Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council. Those figures are
expected to rise to 15.8 million by 2016, according to the council.
But don't expect the port to build a terminal to see if cruise liners will
"We're not going to put up a terminal to see if they'll use it," Buqueras
said. "We're going to put up a terminal with their help. A lot of their
When Buqueras oversaw Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, he signed a
20-year guaranteed contract for revenue with Carnival and Royal, which
helped as hurricanes, economic woes and occasional cruise operator disaster
stories can dent sales.
Buqueras points to what happened at the Port of Houston as to why the port
shouldn't build without a commitment. Its $100 million terminal sat largely
empty and now Houston is paying cruise operators to use it. Norwegian
Cruise Lines will receive $9.5 million in cash, port fees and parking
revenue before seeing its first passenger out of Houston in 2014, according
to media reports.
If flying to Cuba is your preference, Sarasota-Bradenton International
Airport is looking to provide connecting service via Miami if the federal
government approves a merger between American Airlines and U.S. Air, said
Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, airport president and chief executive officer.
"Hopefully they'll approve that merger, and eventually we'll have
connections through Miami," Piccolo said.
A trial between the Justice Department and the airlines is not likely to
start until March, despite the desire of the airlines to start in November.
The two sides could settle out of court.
SRQ is in better position to build upon its international flights to Canada
and for European destinations, Piccolo said.
With or without ferries and cruise ships, the port will undergo significant
growth over the next 20 years. The Berth 12 terminal expansion will be
completed soon with a ribbon-cutting planned in November, Buqueras said.
The port also has a northern terminal planned for construction in its
20-year plan once its existing areas are at 80 percent occupancy.
The port also owns 500 acres of largely undeveloped land to attract
companies to build large warehouses and factories, with the possibility of
one day acquiring right-of-way to provide an access road to Interstate 75
once the port's capacity meets the demand. The area is known as the Florida
Gateway, and the port is the only one in the state to offer that much
"This is the envy of Florida ports," Buqueras said.
Air Products and Chemicals, which makes components pipelines to transport
natural gas, recently signed on as the first business in that district.
Port of Manatee isn't the only Florida port with its eyes on Cuba.
Buqueras talked about readying for Cuba while at the helm of Port
Everglades, and the Port of Tampa is also interested. The port aggressively
markets itself to Latin America at conventions with data, plans and some
"Most Europeans and Brazilians know of two cities in Florida, right? Miami
and Orlando," Buqueras said. "So we keep telling them we're Orlando's
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow
him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.
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