Cuba is a China-sized economic opportunity for Florida, said Florida’s Port of Manatee executive director Thursday, and part of the market might come in the form of cruise and ferry service from here to Havana one day.

When the federal government rules it’s OK to head to Cuba by boat, Manatee County will be ready to pounce, said Carlos Buqueras, port executive director.

“We want to be at the forefront of these opportunities to rebuild Cuba,” Buqueras shared with an audience at a Manatee Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “Of course, we don’t know when it’s going to open, but we can’t wait to get ready.”

The U.S. Department of Treasury granted charter flights to Cuba in 2011 from eight airports, including Tampa and Miami, yet the cruise and ferry industry are still waiting for federal approval of waterways travel.

Buqueras said he spoke to ferry operators that can handle 2,000 passengers plus 1,000 cars to take people from Manatee to Havana.

“It’s only a 10-hour transit between Port of Manatee and Havana,” he said. “You get on at night at 6 o’clock, have a nice dinner on the ship, take a nap or go to the nightclub or go on the deck and take in the breeze, and by the next morning you’re in the center of Havana.”

The daily ferry service could be offered twice a day, he said.

“We want to make sure these ferry companies are aware of what we can do; at the same time, develop a significant opportunity to supply Cuba from here creating hundreds of jobs again,” Buqueras said.

Buqueras had mentioned the possibility of ferry service to Havana during a Port Authority meeting last November, but now is revealing more details and batting around the idea of adding a cruise operator.

Buqueras has begun discussions with the Havana port operator, which is a shared operation between Cuban government and a Spanish company.

Although the cruise business can be finicky, Buqueras has hopes for Cuba.

“I think the industry is very positive and we want to grow in that area,” he said. “Cuba is a tremendous opportunity, obviously. It’s going to be a market unto itself, and I think it’s going to be both cruise and ferry.”

Florida is considered the cruise capital of North America, thanks to the traffic and the numerous corporate and administrative offices for cruise operators. Nearly 14 million people embarked on a cruise at one of Florida’s seven seaports in fiscal 2011-12, according to the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council. Those figures are expected to rise to 15.8 million by 2016, according to the council.

But don’t expect the port to build a terminal to see if cruise liners will come.

“We’re not going to put up a terminal to see if they’ll use it,” Buqueras said. “We’re going to put up a terminal with their help. A lot of their help.”

When Buqueras oversaw Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, he signed a 20-year guaranteed contract for revenue with Carnival and Royal Caribbean, which helped as hurricanes, economic woes and occasional cruise operator disaster stories can dent sales.

Buqueras points to what happened at the Port of Houston as to why the port shouldn’t build without a commitment. Its $100 million terminal sat largely empty and now Houston is paying cruise operators to use it. Norwegian Cruise Lines will receive $9.5 million in cash, port fees and parking revenue before seeing its first passenger out of Houston in 2014, according to media reports.

If flying to Cuba is your preference, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is looking to provide connecting service via Miami if the federal government approves a merger between American Airlines and U.S. Air, said Frederick “Rick” Piccolo, airport president and chief executive officer.

“Hopefully they’ll approve that merger, and eventually we’ll have connections through Miami,” Piccolo said.

A trial between the Justice Department and the airlines is not likely to start until March, despite the desire of the airlines to start in November. The two sides could settle out of court.

SRQ is in better position to build upon its international flights to Canada and for European destinations, Piccolo said.

With or without ferries and cruise ships, the port will undergo significant growth over the next 20 years. The Berth 12 terminal expansion will be completed soon with a ribbon-cutting planned in November, Buqueras said. The port also has a northern terminal planned for construction in its 20-year plan once its existing areas are at 80 percent occupancy.

The port also owns 500 acres of largely undeveloped land to attract companies to build large warehouses and factories, with the possibility of one day acquiring right-of-way to provide an access road to Interstate 75 once the port’s capacity meets the demand. The area is known as the Florida Gateway, and the port is the only one in the state to offer that much adjacent land.

“This is the envy of Florida ports,” Buqueras said.

Air Products and Chemicals, which makes components pipelines to transport natural gas, recently signed on as the first business in that district.

Port of Manatee isn’t the only Florida port with its eyes on Cuba. Buqueras talked about readying for Cuba while at the helm of Port Everglades, and the Port of Tampa is also interested. The port aggressively markets itself to Latin America at conventions with data, plans and some humor, too.

“Most Europeans and Brazilians know of two cities in Florida, right? Miami and Orlando,” Buqueras said. “So we keep telling them we’re Orlando’s port.”

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck. ___

Tags: cuba, florida
Photo Credit: A deepwater seaport, Port Manatee is itching to get tourism to Cuba started. Port Manatee