Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom
Galaxy terminal in Dixon Cove is right across from Carnival Cruise lines facilities.

Competition of Bringing in Maritime Passengers to Roatan is Heating Up

As the Bay Islands expand in population, economy, and infrastructure, its passenger ferry service is now catching up. As the archipelago’s main engine of development, Roatan is showing no signs of slowing down and 2024 could possibly be another record year for economic growth.

The daily maritime transport of several hundred passengers, sometimes as many as two to three thousand, between Roatan and the mainland is a multimillion-dollar business. Paya Magazine estimates that the annual gross revenue from moving such passengers is well over $10 million. The customer base for the island-to-mainland ferry market is plentiful as Roatan has well over 100,000 residents, Utila around 7,000, Guanaja about 14,000, and there are typically an additional 4,000 visitors staying in the archipelago at any given time.

On October 3, 2023, Dream Ferries inaugurated its Roatan to La Ceiba passenger ferry service. “The island has grown 10x [times] over the last ten years, but the ferry service hasn’t really improved,” said Kenny McNab, founder and CEO of Dream Ferries. A young, driven Roatan entrepreneur, McNab also owns several key island businesses, including a chain of BIP (Bay Island Petroleum) petrol stations, BIP Gas distributors and Dream Ferries.

The Roatan Dream catamaran that services the Roatan to La Ceiba route is the company’s newer, larger vessel. Measuring 140 feet and weighing 186 tons, it can seat 300 passengers and has a total capacity of 520. “We see the need for better connectivity between the islands,” says Kenny McNab. “Our next goal is to connect the islands.”

Until October, Galaxy Wave practically monopolized maritime passenger transportation to and from Roatan for three decades. The only brief period of competition took place 1998-1999, when a boat named The Nautica, owned by Ervin Dixon, competed with Galaxy on the Roatan to La Ceiba route.

Galaxy launched in May 1994 when their boat Tropical undertook its initial voyage between Roatan and La Ceiba. The captain of the boat was the company’s founder, John McNab, Kenny McNab’s older cousin. Today Galaxy is run by John McNab’s two children, Jennifer and Ron. Jennifer McNab serves as the company’s general manager. Ron McNab, who is also the current mayor of Roatan Municipality, serves as the operations manager.

Customer base for the island-to-mainland ferry market is plentiful.

Galaxy has been playing things very close to the chest when it comes to their next moves. Based in Dixon Cove, the company operates two catamarans that run twice daily to La Ceiba and on weekly schedule to Guanaja: the 2006-built 160-foot Galaxy Wave, with a passenger capacity of 450, and the 150-foot Tropical Wave, capable of seating 350. It seems a logical next step for Galaxy to introduce a bigger, faster, and more efficient boat for their Roatan to La Ceiba route. “Safeway has been serving our community and clients for 30 years, innovating and evolving right along,” said Jennifer McNab. “We plan to continue to do so while providing the best service we know how.”

In mid December 2023, Galaxy made a strategic shift, evolving from a maritime passenger company to encompassing both maritime and air travel. Galaxy acquired a substantial stake in CM [Cielo Maya] Airlines, an airline that boasts a fleet of six airplanes. CM Airlines serves eight destinations within Honduras and, in partnership with TAG [Transportes Aéreos Guatemaltecos], offers international flights to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Belize.

CM Airlines, with a hub in San Pedro Sula, now considers Roatan as its secondary hub. Following this acquisition, Dream Ferries faces competition not only from Galaxy Ferries but also CM Airlines for its Roatan, La Ceiba, and Utila routes.

The Galaxy Roatan to La Ceiba ticket is priced at $35, or around Lps. 860, subject to dollar fluctuation. Dream Ferries offers a competitive edge by pricing their tickets for the same route at Lps. 800 per passenger, and Lps. 720 if purchased online. “We have to compete with the airlines. It has to be cheaper for you to take the ferry than to fly,” says Kenny McNab.

The increased competition has greatly benefited Roatan residents. The options for travel to the mainland have doubled, and now there’s even the option to transport two cars to and from Roatan on the larger Utila ferry. “We saw an opportunity to come in with newer, more efficient boats, and with a different schedule,” said Kenny McNab. “There are a lot more options [now] for locals and for tourists.”

The Dream Ferries features newer catamarans with more efficient designs. The Roatan Dream and the 104-foot, 295-passenger Utila Dream are powered by two propellers, in contrast to Galaxy’s catamarans, which are driven by four motor jets. “I have been all over the world and I have seen what they are doing and what we are not doing,” says Kenny McNab. “Step up your game or cease to exist. (…) It’s good for us and it’s good for clients.”

Roatan passengers have certainly taken notice. “It’s super clean, and there is great attention from the staff,” said Paola Dolmo from Coxen Hole, commenting on her first voyage with Dream Ferries. “They even bring umbrellas to you so you don’t get wet getting out.”

Kenny McNab has made strategic land purchases for the Dream Ferries terminal, located directly adjacent to Galaxy terminal in Dixon Cove. He plans to build a hotel for business travelers right next to the terminal. Dixon Cove is on track to becoming a central hub for passenger travel, cargo, and business accommodations in the Bay Islands. In the future, passengers might be able to walk just a few yards from a Dream Ferry to the Galaxy facility to the east.

The design of the Dream Ferries terminal stands out for its minimal use of walls or barriers, embodying a different concept of how a ferry terminal should look and feel. Similar to their setup in Utila, passengers on Roatan can now purchase a Dream Ferry ticket and proceed directly to the boat. Dream Ferries opts not to spend time scanning for weapons or drugs, resulting in cost savings for the company and time savings for passengers. “It’s an open concept design, access is more free. If you want to come up to the ferry and take a photo, you can,” said Omar Martínez, manager of operations at Dream Ferries.

Kenny McNab launched the Dream Ferries project in 2013 with his friend Richard Watler. “He saw the need for improved service from Utila to La Ceiba,” said Kenny McNab. Watler, a Utila native who had lived in New Orleans for most of his life, was also a golf buddy of Kenny’s. “It took us six months to design and 18 months to build,” said Kenny McNab. The inaugural service started on October 29, 2015, with the route from Roatan to Utila via the Utila Dream ferry beginning in early 2016. The company launched its ferry service with a brand new 104 foot Utila Dream, capable of accommodating as many as 240 passengers. “It was a struggle at first. I remember days we had one or two passengers,” Kenny McNab recalled. Watler sold his share to Kenny McNab about a year after the launch of the Utila Dream ferries. “The competition was heated when we started,” Kenny McNab remarked.

The company responsible for building the two Dream Ferries catamarans is also a partner in the business. Midship Marine, based in New Orleans, operates a yard specializing in the design and construction of lightweight aluminum watercraft up to 225 feet long. Midship Marine has a track record of notable projects, including the construction of the 118-foot Utila Aggressor II and a ferry servicing the route between Puerto Juaréz, Mexico, and the islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.

There is plenty of room for growth for ferry services in the Bay Islands. “The long term mainland [goal] is car passenger [ferries],” said Kenny McNab. “Roatan has a lot better roads now than before. (…) We are already moving cars on Roatan Dream.” The Roatan Dream catamaran can carry two cars, charging Lps. 9,000 per car, with the driver traveling for free. It’s an attractive option for tourists coming with a luxury vehicle to Roatan. According to Martínez the ferry moves around three vehicles a week.

Kenny McNab is exploring using Puerto Cortés port as a base for reaching Roatan. “The car passenger ferry would have to operate out of Puerto Cortés,” he said. “It would be a five hour run, compared to an hour and a half.” While Puerto Cortés is an extra 47 miles farther from Roatan than La Ceiba, its port ties in to a brand-new road network in Honduras and offers much better port facilities.

He plans to build a hotel for business travelers right next to the terminal.

The Roatan to Puerto Cortés route would circumvent the congestion and delays of travelling to La Ceiba, and makes travel to Roatan more feasible for visitors from San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and even Guatemala. The La Ceiba port has faced challenges with inconsistent dredging of the port entrance, leading to issues with vessels scraping the bottom, needing to turn around, or even sinking. “If it wasn’t for that, we would have even bigger boats,” said Kenny McNab.

There are still additional passenger and car passenger ferry routes that could be developed. One such route is Roatan to La Mosquitia. With thousands of Misquito natives living on Roatan, a passenger service to the less accessible Gracias a Dios Department is in demand. Island Shipping, based in Brick Bay, is another player in maritime transport along Honduras’ north shore. It’s possible that this company could expand to passenger services on their already existing services between Roatan and Puerto Cortés, or even Puerto Lempira and Cauquira.