The US has authorised commercial ferry services to Cuba for the first time in more than a half-century, another major step in improving relations between the two countries.
In what was hailed by ferry operators as “a historical event”, the US Treasury lifted a decades-old ban and at least one Florida company confirmed it had been licensed to launch boat services to the island.
That adds to the charter air services that had been permitted up until now, focused on enabling Cuban-Americans to visit their families.
The ferries will also be allowed to carry cargo to the communist island, which sits just 150km off the southern tip of Florida.
Joseph Hinson, president of Miami-based United Americas Shipping Services, confirmed his company had received permission on Tuesday from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to provide ferry travel.
“Today’s action was a great step forward,” he said, while adding that other permissions were still needed from authorities in both countries before launching the first trip.
Another company, Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said on its Facebook page that it too had received a Treasury licence for ferry services from four Florida ports.
Whether by plane or ferry, American travellers to Cuba still have to come under one of 12 categories permitted in the landmark easing of US sanctions.
But even under embargo restrictions, the number of Americans travelling to Cuba has surged in recent years, with many going via third countries. And in a coincidental announcement not tied to the new Treasury rules, US airline JetBlue announced Tuesday it would begin direct charter flights to Havana from New York, home to the second largest population of Cuban-Americans after Florida.
The moves come amid a landmark thaw in relations initiated by Obama on December 17, when he broke a nearly six-decade Cold War-rooted estrangement between the two countries by lifting sanctions on travel and some trade.