Yachting to Cuba: a new option for luxury travellers

While Americans can’t visit the Caribbean island as tourists, luxury trips are legal

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 a chef.

With all those amenities, the flamboyant vessel named Reflections recently departed from Key West on its way to Havana, its second voyage to the Caribbean 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 US 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 December 17, 2014, almost nothing has happened in Cuba except tourism, and much if not most of the tourism is illegal,” said Coral Gables, Florida, attorney Michael T. Moore, referring to the re-establishment of US-Cuba relations.

“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 travellers 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 non-profit organisation that supports educational programmes and marine studies.

“The Seakeepers organisation 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 US yachts that participated in the Ernest Hemingway Fishing Tournament, an event that has been taking place since 1950, but for decades did not include US-based vessels.

Moore’s firm also handles permits and insurance for mega yachts — vessels more than 79 feet with a crew — travelling 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.

Maria 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 US Coast Guard inspected the island’s marinas and gave the OK for US 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 organising trips to Cuba since 1999.

In June 2016, Romeu organised 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 organised 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 per cent 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 US$50,000 to US$1 million, depending on the yacht, the stay and other factors, Romeu said. Just refueling a yacht like Reflections can cost about US$20,000, she said.

Some customers own their own yachts, and according to 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 organisation that offers yacht charter services to Cuba, has organised 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 authorised,” Berton said.

According to Berton, docking fees on Cuban marinas, although cheap compared to the price of US marinas, provide a good revenue for Cuba. The berth price per foot is about US$1.60 at Havana’s Hemingway Marina, compared to US$7.50 in Miami. So a 79-foot yacht would pay at least US$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.”

Associated Press, scmp.com

February 6, 2017

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