Here's an idea: Offer overnight sailings on a deluxe cruise ferry from Tampa to Havana as an alternative mode of transport for Cuban-Americans who are now crowding onto charter flights at three U.S. airports to visit their ancestral homeland.
The concept is more than just a notion for longtime cruise executive Bruce Nierenberg, who plans to operate a cruise ferry service for Cuban-Americans from Florida ports to Havana once he receives the required U.S. Treasury Department approval.
And once the floodgates open to allow travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens, there will be no stopping the tourism surge, Nierenberg recently predicted.
"More than 400,000 Cuban-Americans flew charter flights to Cuba in 2010," he said. "This is a market that has grown from 180,000 travelers in two years, and much of that growth is a response to the easing of travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans by the Obama administration in 2009."
Nierenberg estimates that the market could top 800,000 passengers a year by 2013.
And that estimate, he said, "does not even take into account what will happen with the new rules announced in January, making licenses for academic, journalistic and religious travel easier to obtain and broadens the numbers of U.S. travelers legally permitted to travel to Cuba."
Nierenberg’s service to Cuba for Cuban-Americans could begin within six months of his receiving the Carrier Service Operator license from the U.S. government.
He applied for the license during the fall of 2009. His company, SeaBridge Ferry Services, which will operate his United Caribbean Lines cruise ferries, is one of several that have requested permission from the U.S. government to transport Cuban-Americans to and from Cuba.
"I applied for a specific category of license, the same kind of license carried by the airlines that operate charter flights to Cuba," Nierenberg said. "We did not apply for a Travel Service Provider license, which tour operators selling trips to Cuba for certain categories of travelers are required to have. I will not be selling tickets or booking passengers. The cruise ferry will operate as a transport service."
Tampa will be the first port to offer the cruise ferry service. Depending upon demand, Miami and Fort Lauderdale could follow.
United Caribbean Lines will offer 18-hour overnight crossings from Tampa, using 2,000-passenger cruise ferries outfitted with passenger amenities such as restaurants, a theater, cabins and entertainment.
Roundtrip fares will be approximately $350 per passenger in a cabin or $150 in an airline recliner-style chair on deck. The rate includes all meals, movies, shows and entertainment. Beverages and onboard purchases in the gift shop will be extra.
Applicable taxes will be included, such as the U.S. departure tax, Cuban taxes and other fees. "These will be the same taxes that are charged on charter flights to Cuba," Nierenberg said.
The cabins can sleep up to four people; Nierenberg said that the first two passengers in the cabin would be charged the full fare, and the other two would be charged half fare.
"Cubans love to travel with family members, so the cabin setup is ideal," he said. "This is a cheaper way for Cuban-Americans to travel together to visit their families in Cuba."
The cruise ferries will have space for 500-plus cars, although Cuban-Americans will not be bringing cars with them to Cuba.
However, they will be able to bring many more gifts and supplies than are now allowed on the charter flights, where excess baggage fees often run as high as $1,000 per passenger on top of the roundtrip fares of $400 or higher, Nierenberg said.
"Cubans bring many items to Cuba that cannot be bought there or are too expensive for their families to purchase, like canned goods, bedding, appliances, electronics, medicine and clothing," he said.
United Caribbean Lines will not charge excess baggage fees, and the cruise ferry will offer a lot more storage space for the items that passengers do bring on board.
Nierenberg’s background spans 35 years in the travel industry. He was CEO of Scandinavian World Cruises, which implemented the first "super ferry" to operate in U.S. waters; it ran from New York to the Bahamas.
He also started one-day "cruises to nowhere" from Florida on SeaEscape, and founded Premier Cruise Lines. In 2003, he became president and CEO of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. until it ceased operations in late 2005 following Hurricane Katrina.
Cruise ferries have been top of mind with Nierenberg for a long time.
"The U.S. is one of the very few developed societies that does not use cruise ferries as a means of passenger transport," he said. "Look at Europe, where these vessels crowd every major port and are a commonplace method of transport."
His idea of a cruise ferry is far removed from what most Americans associate with ferry travel.
"This is not a Staten Island ferryboat I’m talking about," he said. “These cruise ferries will offer a mini-cruise en route to Cuba on a vessel equipped with all the amenities of a passenger cruise ship."
Nierenberg will acquire existing vessels once licensing is secured for the Cuba operation.
"It’s a buyer’s market these days, and I will have no problem getting cruise ferries from one of the major operators in Denmark, Finland, Italy or elsewhere," he said.