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.

By Lucy Chabot Reed, The Triton

March 26, 2015

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of Triton Today. Comments are welcome: lucy@the-triton.com.

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