The United States Treasury Department has authorized passenger ferry services to Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century, in a major step in improving relations between the two countries.
At least four companies said they were notified Tuesday of approvals by the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments, the first since Washington imposed a trade embargo on Cuba.
Licensed were Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale, Baja Ferries of Miami, United Caribbean Lines Florida of Greater Orlando and Airline Brokers Co. of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
The proposed ferry services must still obtain Havana’s approval, lawyers for the companies said, but that the U.S. move clears the way for negotiations.
"Today's action was a great step forward," said Joseph Hinson, president of the Miami-based United Americas Shipping Services. "If all goes smoothly we could have things up and running by September."
The ferries will also be allowed to carry cargo to the communist island of 11 million, which sits just 150 kilometers (90 miles) off the southern tip of Florida.
The ferry companies plan to offer trips that would be less expensive than charter flights, while allowing more luggages free. Many Cuban-Americans haul down hefty supplies for family homes and new private businesses.
Ferry service is the latest example of warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba after President Barack Obama announced last December the two countries are reestablishing business and trade ties following decades of Cold War separation.
The Cuban government
made no immediate comment on the news and it is far from clear that it is willing or able to allow a major new channel for the movement of goods and people between the two countries.