Ferry to Mexico ready to return
By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Operators of the Yucatan Express said the ferry to Mexico will return to the Port of Tampa next winter despite losing about $5-million in its initial five-month season.
The company was late in marketing the vessel, suffered through trips with as few as 37 passengers and cut its schedule in half when one of the ports on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula proved unsuitable for safe sailing.
But passenger loads picked up enough in the final weeks to convince Scotia Prince Cruises the trips from Tampa to the Yucatan can make money within a couple years if the company just keeps at it. More than 500 travelers took the season's final trip from Progreso to Tampa.
"We're very encouraged," said John Hamill, chief operating officer of Yucatan Express. "It will not be profitable even next year, but it's a long-term commitment. It's not for the faint of heart."
The ferry will soon return north to resume its traditional business: carrying tourists, cars and freight between Maine and Nova Scotia. It will come back to Tampa around Nov. 14 for twice weekly round-trips to Progreso and another port in the Yucatan, said Hamill.
The company will decide next February if the ferry is selling enough tickets to justify obtaining another vessel so trips can be offered year-round, he said.
Scotia Prince faced an uphill battle. A local company tried the route three years ago but ran out of money after eight weeks.
The product was unfamiliar: a 36-hour ride each way on a much smaller and more modest vessel than today's glitzy cruise ships. And except for the resort of Cancun, the Yucatan is unknown territory for most travelers.
But the crowds grew through March and April, with three-quarters of the 322 cabins full, according to the company.
Many of the passengers came from West and Central Florida, an arc stretching from Brooksville to Orlando to Fort Myers, Hamill said. But word of mouth brought customers from as far as Canada and Belize.
They included BMW and Harley Davidson motorcycle clubs and a hard core of 40 to 50 travelers who made the trip a half dozen times or more, Hamill said.
The most popular itinerary was the "back-to-back" trip, which left Tampa Friday afternoon, stopped for eight hours of sightseeing in the Yucatan and returned before noon Tuesday, he said.
"We have proven there's a market," said Tampa port director George Williamson. "But it takes someone well-funded who understands the (ferry) market."
The Yucatan Express will begin booking trips for next season in about three months, said Hamill. Customers can get information at the Web site www.yucatanexpress.com or by calling 1-866-461-5812.
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