Yachting to Cuba — a 'beautiful' exception to the embargo
BY ABEL FERNÁNDEZ
The 107-foot mega yacht has four cabins with private bathrooms, a
jacuzzi, two jet skis, two auxiliary boats and a crew of four, including
With all those amenities, the flamboyant vessel named Reflections
recently departed from Key West to Havana, its second voyage to the
island in less than a year.
Reflections is just one of hundreds of yachts that have been sailing
from the United States to Cuba since September 2015, when the U.S.
Department of the Treasury issued a new set of regulations approved by
the former Obama administration that opened the door to passenger
transportation to the island by sea.
Those in the industry say the number of yacht excursions is multiplying
quickly even as passenger cruise ships, which operate under the same
regulations, have gotten the most attention.
"Since Dec. 17, 2014, almost nothing has happened in Cuba except
tourism, and much if not most of the tourism is illegal," said Coral
Gables attorney Michael T. Moore, referring to the reestablishment of
"By this I mean that it does not comply with the embargo exceptions," he
said. "But there's one exception, and it's beautiful: yacht trips."
Although Americans who visit the island can't go simply as tourists,
which is prohibited under the still intact embargo, luxury trips like
what Reflections offers are legal — at least for now. It is not yet
known if President Donald Trump will reverse the relaxed measures
imposed by the Obama administration.
American travelers to Cuba, by sea or air, are required to comply with
one of 12 categories approved by the Office of Foreign Assets Control
(OFAC), which oversees embargo regulations over Cuba. Moore's firm has
facilitated more than 100 yacht trips to Cuba.
"Of the 12 exceptions for Americans to travel to the island, we focus on
the environment," Moore said.
During their stay, passengers partake in a busy itinerary, including
classic car rides accompanied by a guide, dinners at restaurants known
as paladares and visits to several keys where they can dive, interact
with Cuban scientists who do research and collaborate with the
International Society of Seakeepers, a nonprofit organization that
supports educational programs and marine studies.
"The Seakeepers organization is a scientific community that works
together with the yacht community," said Moore, who is a member of the
board. "Scientists do not act alone, they need a sponsor. We do not
donate money, but we provide the yacht."
Moore said that Seakeepers is not tied to the Cuban government: "It's an
effort to establish relationships with the Cuban people."
Moore said that most of the customers interested in traveling by boat to
Cuba contact his firm, Moore & Co.
"They tell us 'we want to go to Cuba', and we guide them in the process.
We take them by the hand," he said.
Last year, Moore & Co. handled the permit process for 55 U.S. yachts
that participated in the Ernest Hemingway Fishing Tournament, an event
that has been taking place since 1950, but for decades did not include
Moore's firm also handles permits and insurance for mega yachts —
vessels more than 79 feet with a crew — traveling to Cuba. But customers
usually contract a concierge to charter the yacht, prepare the itinerary
and handle the logistics in Cuba, such as land transportation, guided
tours and other details.
María Romeu, a Cuban American who for decades worked on cultural
exchange events that brought Cuban artists to perform in the United
States, now serves as a yacht concierge. Romeu, who worked as a yacht
crew member for years, said she had been preparing for the time when
sailing to the island would be allowed.
"We all had the idea that door was going to open. The conditions were
already there," Romeu said.
Cuba has about a dozen marinas run by the state-owned company MARLIN S.A
and at least one from the Gaviota group, which belongs to the military.
Seven of the marinas serve as international port entries.
Following the 2015 regulations, the U.S. Coast Guard inspected the
island's marinas and gave the OK for U.S. vessels to make the trip.
"It all opened up like a faucet," Romeu said. In October 2015, she
launched VIP Yachts, a branch of Cuba Tours & Travel, a California-based
travel agency that has been organizing trips to Cuba since 1999.
In June 2016, Romeu organized the company's first trip to Cuba aboard a
157-foot mega yacht that sailed along the perimeter of the island — from
Cayo Largo del Sur on the south central coast to Havana.
"Since then, it has been one after another. We have been very
successful," said Romeu, who also organized the recent trip out of Key
West on Reflections, which accommodated eight passengers.
Romeu already has 65 yacht reservations booked for this year, all of
which will include scientific exploration.
In the Canarreos Archipelago, along the southwest coast of mainland
Cuba, "there is a conservation program in each key," Romeu said. "There,
the clients get involved, they dive with the scientists, and they keep
everything within the law."
As part of her work, Romeu is responsible for making sure that
everything goes as planned: guided tours, drivers, classic cars,
restaurants, diving expeditions and other logistics. Seakeepers deals
with the nautical part of the trip.
"Logistics are complicated in Cuba," Romeu said. "There are a lot of
things that can't be found on the island, so you have to take everything
needed for the trip."
Romeu said her customers "are very wealthy people, those within the 1 or
2 percent of the population," who expect exclusive service of the
highest quality. Many have private jets and prefer to fly to the island
and board the yacht there.
"Very few hotels in Cuba could accommodate the level of luxury demanded
by this type of customer, so yachts also serve as a hotel," Romeu said.
A trip to Cuba on a luxury yacht can cost from $50,000 to $1 million,
depending on the yacht, the stay and other factors, Romeu said. Just
refueling a yacht like Reflections can cost about $20,000, she said.
Some customers own their own yachts, and according to current
regulations, they can take more passengers than the 12 passenger limit
for chartered trips.
In January, Romeu made an exploratory trip to Cuba with a delegation of
24 people from the International Yacht Travel Organization to show them
the Cuban marinas. She also is handling the logistics for 25 yachts from
the Ocean Reef Club, in Key Largo, that have a trip planned for April.
Gerald Berton of Cuba Seas, an organization that offers yacht charter
services to Cuba, has organized 85 trips to the island since September
2015. His company offers insurance for boats, submits all the required
paperwork and ensures that OFAC regulations are complied with.
"People want to know first that everything is authorized," Berton said.
According to Berton, docking fees on Cuban marinas, although cheap
compared to the price of U.S. marinas, provide a a good revenue for
Cuba. The berth price per foot is about $1.60 at Havana's Hemingway
Marina, compared to $7.50 in Miami. So a 79-foot yacht would pay at
least $126 per day. Unlike other countries, Cuba does not charge entry
fees for yachts, Berton said.
Berton said he had prepared for 10 years for the opportunity to travel
to Cuba by yacht.
"It seemed natural that one day the restrictions would be lifted," he
said. "We're only 90 miles away."
Follow Abel Fernández on Twitter @abelfglez
Source: Luxury yachts are sailing to Cuba in higher numbers | Miami