Owner: Ferry ready for Cuba
By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Matthew Hudson has a ferry with 322 cabins and a huge cargo hold sitting idle at the Port of Tampa for half of every week.
And Hudson, owner of the M/V Scotia Prince, thinks lots of Floridians would jump at the chance to visit relatives in Cuba, bringing along boxes of food, clothing and other basic necessities.
Thousands travel legally by air each month from Miami, he says. So, Hudson asks, why not let him sail them from Tampa to Cuba and back?
"We're ready and willing and able to go," said Hudson, chairman of Scotia Prince Cruises, at a news conference on the ferry Wednesday. It was his first public comment on a plan that produced more skepticism and criticism than enthusiasm when it became known a day earlier.
"Our government . . . will need to decide if their (Cuba) policy allow us to do that," Hudson said, "We're only trying to do something that's already allowed."
The Treasury Department hasn't ruled on an inches-thick application his company filed two weeks ago for a license to transport visitors to Cuba, he said. But a department spokeswoman said Tuesday that federal law doesn't allow for ferry service between the two nations.
But Hudson's attorneys say the law that restricts trade with Cuba doesn't address the issue. The question, he said, is whether Treasury officials decide government policy on Cuba allows such a ferry to Cuba.
"I'm satisfied what we're asking for is permitted under law," Hudson said. "But policies can be changed from day to day."
Scotia Prince asked the Treasury Department to allow 10 weekly round trips between Tampa and a Cuban port starting Feb. 25, he said.
Fares would start at $499 per person and include all meals and port charges. Each traveler would be allowed to bring 100 cubic feet of cargo free, Hudson said.
The ferry, which makes weekly trips to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, will leave Tampa at the end of April and return to its regular summer route carrying passengers between Portland, Maine, and Nova Scotia.
Hudson's hope for government approval by next month are a long shot at best, said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Government background checks on companies seeking licenses to transport passengers to Cuba can last two or three months, he said. Regulators also must determine if the request is in the interests of the United States, in the interests of travelers and whether it requires additional federal expenditures for inspection personnel.
"I wouldn't be putting any money down for a ticket," Kavulich said.
Hudson said the company is accepting reservations but won't charge customers unless and until it receives a government license. The company's toll-free number is 1-866-216-8129.
-- Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.
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