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What U.S. yacht owners, crew need to know about traveling to Cuba

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According to a May report from the Associated Press, American tourism in Cuba has risen a dramatic 36 percent within the past year. Only 90 miles from Florida’s coastline, Cuba is still considered one of the last frontiers in the Caribbean, leaving many U.S. yacht owners eager to navigate and explore the country’s waters.

Although diplomatic negotiations have made traveling between the two countries easier, the rules and regulations are constantly changing, so it’s imperative that yacht owners consult with an marine insurance specialist and maritime attorney before planning a voyage.

Late last year, President Obama announced a plan to begin easing trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made certain amendments to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) to implement this plan on Jan. 16.

This news spurred interest among yacht owners and crews, as many expected the changes to allow Americans to travel to Cuba without any restrictions. Unfortunately, this is not entirely true. The ease in regulations’ focal point is a revision to the type of travel license required. The U.S. trade embargo remains in effect, and can only be lifted by Congress.

Prior to the policy shift, U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba had to apply for a special license on a case-by-case basis. Now, U.S. citizens can visit Cuba if they qualify for a general license within the 12 categories of authorized travel, which include these: official business of a government, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops; athletic competitions and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information; and certain authorized export transactions.

Negotiations have eased the restrictions for private boat travel, as several U.S. yachts have legally participated in sailing races and fishing tournaments over the past few months; however, these vessels and their crews were properly licensed to do so. Everyone on board the vessel, including the yacht owner, passengers and crew, must qualify for one of the 12 general licenses in their own right.

If an individual does not qualify for one of the general licenses, they must obtain a specific license from OFAC. To transport passengers to and from Cuba, the yacht owner must obtain a specific license from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). Also, the yacht, itself is subject to the Department of Commerce’s Export Administration Regulations (EAR), and requires a specific export license before the yacht can be temporarily brought into Cuba.

According to the commodore of Cuba’s largest marina, the Ernest Hemingway International Nautical Club, the island’s infrastructure is not prepared to handle a large influx of boats, especially yachts. Cuba is estimated to have about 15 marinas and 800 slips total, and lacks both shipyards and nautical stores. Yachts over 150 feet must anchor offshore, as no marina on the island can accommodate their needs.

As of press time, a limited number of U.S. carriers offered yacht coverage after the proper licensing had been approved. The OFAC certification process is time consuming, so yacht owners should research coverage upon approval.

Another consideration is health and travel insurance. Should an authorized U.S. traveler become ill or sustain an injury while traveling in Cuba, a limited number of U.S. insurance carriers may pay medical claims provided that the individual or group policy is a global policy. This means that the travel or health policy cannot be issued to specifically cover a trip to Cuba.

For yacht owners interested in taking their yacht to Cuba, advanced planning is required. The first step would be to ensure the trip falls within the scope of OFAC’s authorized categories. The next step would be to contact the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security division (BIS) to obtain a license required for the temporary journey of the yacht.

Once the two U.S. government agencies have approved the voyage, provide all licensing, a navigation itinerary and a crew manifest to the yacht’s insurance adviser for approval. Although not all insurance companies provide coverage for Cuba, those carriers that do can issue coverage on a per-trip basis.

The process to issue coverage can take up to four weeks to clear with the insurance company’s legal department.

Thomas Gresh is vice president of the marine division of Celedinas Insurance Group (www.celedinas.com) and based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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