The Obama administration has approved the first ferry service in decades between the United States and Cuba, potentially opening a new path for hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars in goods that travel between Florida and Havana each year.

Baja Ferries, which operates a passenger service in Mexico, said it received a licence from the US Treasury Department and company lawyer Robert Muse said he believed other ferry service petitions had also been approved.

A woman jogs on the Malecon as the Thomson Dream cruise ship arrives in Havana bay.

The Treasury Department said it could not immediately confirm that, but the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Florida said approvals were also received by Havana Ferry Partners of Fort Lauderdale, United Caribbean Lines Florida in the Orlando area and Airline Brokers of Miami.

Mr Muse said Baja had yet to request approval from Cuba, but was optimistic the service would allow a significant increase in trade and travel between the two countries.

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.

“I think it’s a further indication of the seriousness of the Obama administration in normalising relations with Cuba,” said Mr Muse, an expert on US law on Cuba. “We’re now going from the theoretical to the very specific.”

Before Cuba’s 1959 revolution, ferries ran daily between Florida and Cuba, bringing American tourists to Havana’s hotels and casinos and allowing Cubans to take overnight shopping trips to the United States.

That ended with the revolution. Now, the 600,000-plus people who travel between the US and Cuba each year depend on expensive charter flights.

About 80% of US travellers to Cuba are Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, and a large number travel with huge amounts of consumer goods unavailable in communist Cuba, from baby clothes to flat-screen TV sets.

That cargo has become increasingly expensive and difficult to bring in recent years due to the high prices charged by charters and tightened Cuban customs rules.

Mr Muse said he believed ferries would allow lower-priced passenger and cargo service and provide a potential conduit for new forms of trade allowed by Barack Obama when he announced a series of loopholes in the trade embargo on Cuba late last year.

Among other measures, the president allowed the import of some goods produced by Cuba’s new private sector and allowed the virtually unlimited export of products to entrepreneurs.

Ferries also provide a new route for US travellers to Cuba, who also depend on the charter services.

Travel from the US has been rising since Mr Obama’s December 17 announcement and new pressure groups are pushing for Congress to end all travel restrictions and allow pure tourism, currently prohibited by law.

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