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World

U.S. Issues Licenses For Ferry Travel To Cuba

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For the first time in more than 50 years, ferries could soon be shuttling across the water between the U.S. and Cuba. The U.S. government has issued licenses to at least four companies to run ferry services harking back to an era when Americans and Cubans could cross daily between the two countries - that is, if the Cuban government agrees. NPR's Jackie Northam has this report.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Five years ago, Florida-based Baja Ferries applied for a license to operate a ferry service to and from Cuba. It was shortly after President Obama had begun to relax some of the travel restrictions for Americans. But Joe Hinson, the executive vice president of the ferry company, says the Treasury Department, which issues the licenses, turned them down flat. But then after Obama announced in December a normalizing in relations between the two countries, Hinson says Baja Ferries tried again. On Tuesday, he received an email saying a license had been granted.

JOE HINSON: I printed it out, kind of just slid it on the chairman of our company's desk and kind of walked away - waited to hear the result.

NORTHAM: And what was it?

HINSON: It was quite impressive. We had a few high-fives going around in the office.

NORTHAM: The decision to issue the ferry licenses comes at just the right time, says Robert Muse, a D.C. lawyer who specializes in U.S. laws relating to Cuba. He says the normalization process between the two countries had stalled slightly over the issue of opening embassies in Washington and Havana. Muse says a decision on licenses helps keep the momentum going.

ROBERT MUSE: And it's a good, positive interim signal from the administration that it's serious about normalizing relations.

NORTHAM: With the licenses granted by the administration, the ferry companies can now start working on logistics. Baja Ferries' Joe Hinson says their vessels can carry up to 2000 people at a time, and they plan to have restaurants and a nightclub on board. And Hinson says it'll be cheaper than a charter flight - about $250 round-trip, excluding port charges. That includes up to 200 pounds of cargo free of charge. That's especially important for goods going into Cuba.

HINSON: People can bring in computers and flat screen TVs and things of that nature where they couldn't do that before. And we also envision having duty-free shops aboard the vessel that would allow them to actually make purchases right on board so they wouldn't have to lug them onto the ship.

NORTHAM: Hinson says Baja Ferries envisions trips between Miami and Havana three times a week until the business grows. But all this is contingent on whether the Cuban government approves. Muse says his long experience tells him things are often complicated when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations.

MUSE: In Cuba, everything is filtered through the lens of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. I'm very, very hopeful this will go quickly. But I'm also aware of Cuban decision-making and how variables that may not apply here will apply in Havana.

NORTHAM: Even if Havana does approve the licenses, only authorized travelers to Cuba, such as people visiting their families or on educational tours, would be able to take the ferry trips. At the moment, Americans aren't allowed to travel to Cuba for vacation. But that, like many of the other travel restrictions, could very well be eased over time. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.