TAMPA, Florida The Port of Tampa hopes to start passenger and car ferry service between Tampa and Cuba under President Barack Obama's relaxed travel restrictions, a port spokesman said on Wednesday.
"There has been interest by some companies in starting the service," said spokesman Andy Forbes.
He said one of those companies was United Caribbean Lines of Orlando, which has applied to the United States to operate ferry service between Cuba and Tampa, Miami and Fort Lauderdale in Florida.
"We're waiting for approval and could start as early as this fall," United Caribbean Chief Executive Bruce Nierenberg said in a telephone interview.
The Cuban government would also have to agree to the deal.
Tampa International Airport was one of several U.S. airports approved for nonstop flights to and from Cuba earlier this month, expanding the current service from Miami, New York and Los Angeles. It is uncertain when the flights will start.
U.S.-Cuban relations have been strained since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power, and a 49-year-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba remains in effect.
Obama announced the eased travel restrictions in January, saying he wanted to increase people-to-people contact between Americans and Cubans.
But relations between the two Cold War enemies grew strained again last week when Cuba sentenced a U.S. aid contractor, Alan Gross, to 15 years in prison for what it called a subversive project to topple the Cuba revolution.
The United States said Gross was working to set up Internet access for Cuba's small Jewish community and did nothing wrong by bringing in communications equipment. Cuba found him guilty of "acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state."
The United States has said it will not undertake any more initiatives with the Caribbean island until Gross is freed.
U.S. travel to Cuba is still generally restricted to Americans with relatives in Cuba and to cultural, educational and religious groups.
Tampa has the second largest Cuban-American population in Florida, behind Miami. Many are descendants of Cuban cigar makers who came to Tampa in the 1880s and made the city the center of cigar production in the United States.
The sailing time between Tampa and Cuba would be about 18 hours and the cost about $350 round-trip. The ferries would have overnight accommodations and could carry 1,500 passengers and 600 cars.
Nierenberg said he also wanted to start ferry service between Tampa and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in 2012. A ferry service was started between those two ports in 2003 but was discontinued after less than a year.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)