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An open Cuba will rise yachting’s tide


Despite the reality that private yachts and non-American crew can and do travel to Cuba, the recent change in travel restrictions for Americans may be the biggest boost yachting has seen since the tech bubble.

In a session titled “Cuba: The Last Frontier” at the Superyacht Summit yesterday, a panel of yachting industry people indicated that once Americans are free to visit, the impact on yachting — not to mention the island — will be enormous.

“There’s a transformation going on right now in Cuba,” said Antonio Zamora, a foreign investment attorney in Miami and a Cuban-American. “You ask about nautical tourism, but without the United States, there is no nautical tourism. Maybe there are two boats from Spain, one boat from France. And that’s it. I see 30-40,000 boats going to Cuba [from the U.S.] each year.”

“We spoke to the commercial director of Gaviota Marina Varadero, and he said ‘We’re waiting for you’,” said Marilyn DeMartini, who recently traveled to the island nation and wrote about it for an upcoming issue of Invictus magazine. “The 1,000 slips they are building were empty, except for a handful of Canadian and European boats.”

The biggest impact will be on the charter market, said Bob Saxon, president of International Yacht Collection in Ft. Lauderdale. While private yachts visit Cuba, the charter fleet has resisted because of the legal restrictions on Americans.

“The charter market is a $1 billion market now,” Saxon said. “Ten years ago, it was $300 million. And there are 350 yachts over 100 feet spending the season in the Caribbean. You look in [St. Maarten’s Simpson Bay] and it’s wall-to-wall white boats doing nothing. It used to be that 8-9 weeks was the average … now the average is 3-4 weeks.

“There’s two reasons for that,” he said. “First, the fleet has expanded exponentially and there has been no corresponding marketing effort to help promote it. And second, charter customers seek new destinations.”

St. Maarten and other Caribbean islands have a high “misery factor”, he said. And while Tahiti has worked hard to become a charter destination, it’s distance precludes it from being a viable charter destination for much of the fleet.

“With Cuba, you have the proximity to the U.S.” as well as the newness of the cruising grounds, he said. “When restrictions are dropped, you will see a marked shift in the charter market.”

About 78 percent of people who buy or build a yacht have chartered at least once, he said, so an easing of restrictions that boosts the charter market will have a ripple effect throughout yachting.

“I see fully loaded boats coming out of Florida on their way to Cuba to enjoy the cruising,” he said. “The ultimate effect will be slow coming, but as facilities grow, it will come. That means jobs, and it’s great for the charter market.”

The island is not yet ready to handle large yachts. Its existing marinas can handle yachts up to about 150 feet, but electrical and sewage systems are not what large yachts are used to. Yachts larger than 150 feet must anchor out.

“People say there is no infrastructure, but the yachting infrastructure will happen as a result of demand,” Saxon said.

“You don’t need infrastructure,” said Michael Reardon, a yacht management consultant in Ft. Lauderdale and session attendee. “There are lots of places to anchor out. The north side is protected and the south side has some of the best diving in the world. It’s not for the faint of heart, but for the adventurous, the island is huge and it [cruising there on a yacht] can be done.”

U.S. President Obama announced an easing of restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, but tourism is still not an accepted facet among the 12 categories of travel. Americans can travel to participate in events, visit relatives, do professional research and go on educational trips, for example, and no longer need a license to travel for those kinds of reasons.

Going by boat is a little different, according to Zamora. To do so, the boat must have less than 10 percent American components, be registered outside the U.S., and have a purpose for the visit, such as environmental or professional research, or to participate in an event such as a fishing tournament.

Boats built in the U.S. or with more than 10 percent American components must obtain a license to visit Cuba by filling out a SNAP-R with the Bureau of Industry and Security with the U.S. Department of Commerce. And they need a specific reason.

“The problem is not in Cuba, it’s returning to the U.S.,” said Leonard Moecklin, who provides onboard security for yachts and has applied three times in the past six years for permission to run a passenger ferry to Havana.

A law has been proposed in the U.S. to eliminate tourism as a restriction, but it has not yet been voted on.

“It will pass,” Zamora said. “If not this year, then next, but it will pass. I think it’s awful that Americans are restricted from traveling someplace. It’s offensive to Americans. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The two-day Superyacht Summit, now in its second year, was produced by the U.S. Superyacht Association.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of Triton Today. Comments are welcome:

About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Lucy Chabot Reed →

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11 thoughts on “An open Cuba will rise yachting’s tide

  1. Wally Moran

    Just the thought of Cuba’s pristine bays and cays being sullied by a horde of megayachts droning in mortifies me. The thought of hundreds of charter boats, full of people only interested in getting drunk on local rum, infesting them makes me want to be ill. Aren’t there enough bloody BVI cruising grounds, enough condos, enough tropical destinations that we don’t have to attempt to turn yet ANOTHER into a rich person’s version of paradise…complete with hot and cold running cabana boys and every other convenience known to mankind?
    Cuba is something very special, and for many reasons. I adore the time I’ve spent there, anchored out with not a single other vessel anywhere near – and only the local fishermen for company. No blasting music, no drunken fools, no resort facilities in sight. And I enjoy Marina Hemingway, and Darsena, cherish them for how different they are from the marinas in Fort Lauderdale and Miami – and yes, every other stop I’ve been to in the US and elsewhere.
    Almost none of you will get this – and by the time you DO get to Cuba, you’ll have missed it. Another paradise, paved into a parking lot. You lose, and you’ll never, ever know.

  2. Richard Graves

    In a way I agree with you Wally. However, Cuba, at this time, will have to rely heavily on tourism, including yachting tourism to boost its’ economy. . If you read the statistics Cuba does a lot of tourism already, except from the U.S. In one luxury travel publication, Cuba is listed as the hottest up and coming destination in the Caribbean. Land tourism is already big business in Cuba.

    The area that needs help is yachting tourism which will only be successful when the U.S. embargo is lifted. One study by a Florida University states that the first year that the embargo is lifted, 60,000 US boats will visit Cuba. However, if it happens to soon, Cuba will not be able to handle the onslaught.

    I am going back to Cuba at the end of May to do some further research on the existing Marina facilities and plans for the future. I am working with a Cuban Marine Biologist living in Miami who is very familiar with the coastline of Cuba. We are going to work on a feasibility study for a layout of marinas in Cuba on both coasts that will better serve yachts cruising the Eastern and Western Caribbean. Cuba will definitely be the gateway to the Western Caribbean from the US and will definitely generate more business to the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Cancun, Panama and the Panama Canal

    Hopefully, when the embargo is lifted and the Cuban Government allows U.S. Investment and our marine industry has a chance to participate, we will have a good idea what is needed to satisfy the U.S market. In addition to the US market, Cuba will definitely become a hot destination for the Mega and Superyacht market. —– they are looking for something new in the Caribbean.

  3. Wally Moran

    Richard – as you are likely aware, yachting tourism is likely to be confined to Varadero and Havana – most of the rest of Cuba lacks anything of real interest to this particular crowd. Not only that, but the lack of suitable infrastructure elsewhere in Cuba will limit where megas and charter vessels will go. I saw a 80+ foot vessel in Hemingway on my last trip. It barely made it in, which is why, of course, Cuba is looking at opening Havana Harbor.
    Your plan to see marinas installed along the coast, while admirable, is unlikely to appeal to many boaters for a variety of reasons – first and foremost, there is really not a lot to see outside of the major cities on the north coast – Varadero and Havana being foremost. Holguin, Cuba’s second largest city, is too far inland to be of interest, and there’s far too little room in Puerto de Vita for the kinds of boats readers here are accustomed to. Guillermo – Cayo Coco – there is nothing but resorts catering to budget tourists from Europe and Canada. Elsewhere on the north coast, navigational issues will likely bar these large boats from entering.
    Furthermore, most of those traveling will have the typical ‘tourist’ mentality – they don’t want to see the poverty that is endemic in Cuba, they don’t want to sit in a local pub and sing along with people they consider their inferiors – they want their starbucks and their discos and all the gold plated facilities – which simply do not exist in Cuba.
    That’s the reality of this. You can build these facilities – if you can convince anyone of their worth – but who will come? It’s Havana and Varadero on the north coast, and that’s truly, imo, all there should be.
    As for the south coast – getting there is a major undertaking from the US. First, you have to get around to there, which is a minimum of a couple of hundred miles along the Cuban north coast. Then you have to get somewhere of interest. Again, how many people are going to go there, when Havana, and all it offers, is right there?
    We can discuss this over mojitos at Club Nautico when we’re there! Ought to be an entertaining discussion to say the least. For my part, I vote for low impact boating tourism. Let’s try and preserve the uniqueness of Cuba, not do the ‘pave paradise’ thing yet again.

  4. Richard Graves

    Wally as we discussed before, it is not about what is, it is about what will be. I don’ t expect it to be yachting paradise by tomorrow, it will take time. Also I am quite familiar with the mega yacht segment and I disagree with your comment – megayachts will visit Cuba as soon as there is enough space to handle them . The diving,fishing, ecology, and the beauty of the island will be enough to get them there . During my time at Sunrise Harbar captains were telling me the owner’s were getting tired of the same destinations in the Caribbean.

  5. Wally Moran

    Mega yacht people are visiting Cuba, secretly, even now and have been for years. Most return via the Bahamas thinking they are escaping detection that way. Fact is, the US hasn’t cared for years now about boats going there, it’s pretty much all talk. I’m not saying ‘go and break the law’, I’m just stating what the reality is.
    Seriously, Richard – how long will the megayacht people be willing to put up without their Starbucks and their spas – which is not what Cuba is about. Sure there is great diving, etc., but again – how many are going to travel 500 miles by boat to go to the resorts where this is available, such as to the east of Puerto de Vita? How many megayacht types are going to put up with having their boat searched EVERY time they move? That gets old real fast.
    There is a reality to Cuba that is glossed over by many of those currently writing about it, largely because very very few of them have travelled in Cuba by boat as I have – and thus, many are thinking it will be a poor man’s Fort Lauderdale. Ain’t happening. The transformation required in Cuba is much greater than you imagine, and Cuba certainly does not want to turn back into the Cuba of the 50s…they’ve learned that lesson, and I’m not talking about Batista either.
    The kinds of boats you are talking about here – they’re quite limited in where they will be able to go in Cuba. Hemingway for some of them. Varadero for most of them. But explain to me why any savvy investor is going to put big money into a marina in the middle of nowhere – such as Guillermo/Cayo Coco. This is not a case of ‘if you build it, they will come’. Cuba has a long way to go before that happens.
    As for what it will be – why do you think Cuba is experiencing a surge in tourism right now? People want to see what Cuba is – before it gets paved over and turned into Lauderdale South, or BVI West – you know, those destinations that they’re tired of, and that people such as yourself want to turn Cuba into. Do you see the irony of that?
    I will be spending a considerable amount of time in Cuba between now and the end of the year, completing my circumnavigation of the island before returning again to Hemingway to explore Havana further. I’ll be sure to take lots of photos so that when the developers have succeeded in turning the island into another travesty such as Bimini, there will be a record of what was lost.

  6. geegee morgan


    Dear Richard and Wally,

    I have been going to Cuba since 1995 in Yachts and boats from 30 feet up. We took in the Lady Melia a 145 West ship into the Marina Hemingway with NO PROBLEMS. So, I am not quite sure why the comment on Yachts not being able to get in? There are good captains and poor captains. I have come in with several Yachts that I helped get their papers to enter into Cuba legally. I have been a consultant to Mega Yachts wanting to come to Cuba for many years, up until about 6 years ago. I worked with Jennifer Sacks on Yacht projects going to Cuba. IF you are talking about Yacht Ships that is for the Dirty Harbor of Havana which is a huge problem. As Sea Spill we took a group of marine engineers to see what can be done… The French have failed also. The solution: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” The Havana harbor does not have a good water flow in and out to clean it out. That is another subject.

    I don’t feel all Yacht owners are big party people or like Starbucks, but want new, adventure, culture, people, beach’s and fishing. Perhaps some of the charter people are. I feel Cuba has a lot to offer to Yachts and boaters alike Wally. Just the beaches speak for themselves and the fishing. IT is a new forbidden country for so many years. I also have been to and having done most of the islands. I m tired of them and the fished out waters and high cost of going there and being taken.
    I was just in Cuba 5 days ago and Varadero is a nice marina and there is plenty of room to get away from the crowds.

    I was in on the Fla. State study and convention when it came out years ago. The figures back then have doubled. I do believe Cuba will adjust when the time comes. The old dictatorship is dwindling and the younger generation want change. I have had my eye on Cuba since 1995 and have promoted Regattas and brought boat builders and business people to Cuba. I did the first trip with Kitty Mc Gown and the Ft. Lauderdale Marine industry 12 years ago.

    Wally, I do understand your frustration that it will be the next South Beach or Ft. Lauderdale, but that is what travel is all about and it will farther the lives of the Cuba people. I had so many asking me if I was an American and they “HOPE” the Americans come soon. Look at Cuba in the 50’s and who come. Cuba is a destination of interest for all those who want to travel by land or sea, just like all the other countries that the Americans travel by plane or boat.

    My interest in Cuba for 16 years has been: “The seas that divide us shall come together in peace and safe boating.” I am Sea Tow Cuba and have come and lectured at conventions in Havana on the environmental concerns of Marinas. I bought the Commodore to the USA years ago, so he could see how the USA manages Marinas and the environmental issues that needed to be addressed when he was managing the Marina Hemingway Marina. I wanted to make him have an awareness on dumping, oil spills and bilge pumping in the marinas, just a few of my concerns. My husband is a captain and my family has owned over 6 Sea Tows in the USA. We believe the sea is for all to enjoy and that includes the USA and Cuba. As for who is a dreamer and how many Marinas Cuba can handle. I was given a figure of about 30. Some will be small 25-30 slips, but the average will be 200 slips. There was a small study on that also, so time will tell. Richard I will be interested in your study also.

    Let our differences made a difference in promoting good boating habits and the boating environment in Cuba. To be fair to the people and country that we will be a guest in.
    I live also in Costa Rica and the Marine industry is interested in Cuba marinas also.

  7. geegee morgan

    I want to add this.

    Back in 1995 when I acquired the rights to the country of Cuba from Sea Tow International. Many laughed and said I was a dreamer. IT has been a long wait and might be a year or so. But now, the dream has light and life to it now. NO ONE is laughing now and see the potential of Sea Tow Cuba to assist boaters between the Keys and Cuba or the islands to Cuba, regattas, fishing tournament’s and to deal with the insurance company’s. I was a woman with a vision, dream and hope.



    Should I bring a lot of spare parts when I go to Cuba? Not to sound too naive, but the Bahamas has a number of harbours with needed ship supplies. Wondering about your experiences in Cuba.

    Geegee, Wally and Richard: I love the quality, clarity and fairness of you comments. I have learned from them.

  9. geegee

    Yes, I am sorry I just got to read your comment Chris. Bring spare parts just as you would in the Bahamas..:) The Cubans are very enterprising thought. One of the boats that I was on about 9 years ago started on fire on the way over.. We were amazed at the pieces they made and created to handle the exhausted lines and funnels. Better than the parts that we would have bought in the USA.
    But I would not rely on that.. Bring Parts. 🙂

  10. Gerhard Sowa

    Wondering if someone could help us out. We are a 130 MY private boat looking to spend 6 months in Cuba. We would like to experience the local culture. Where should we stay? Is it safe? Any other concerns?

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