CubaNews / February 2004
By Larry Luxner
Havana’s famous Marina Hemingway can host up to 400 pleasure boats, but it’s rare to see more than 100 vessels tied up to the marina’s docks at any given time.
With strict new U.S. travel restrictions in place and being vigorously enforced, the majority of American yacht owners are simply too afraid to sail to Cuba. And those who do make the trip keep a decidedly low profile.
In fact, the Cuban security men patrolling the marina discourage visitors from photographing any boats — lest the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) finds out and punishes U.S. citizens for traveling to Cuba and possibly spending money illegally there.
Yet Washington’s travel ban won’t last forever, and Cuban authorities are already gearing up for the expected flood of U.S. boating enthusiasts by upgrading existing marinas and building new ones from one end of the island to the other.
José Miguel Díaz Escrich, commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club of Cuba, says he’s looking forward to the day when American boating enthusiasts will visit his facility openly and frequently.
“We didn’t name our club after Ernest Hemingway for commercial reasons,” said Escrich, a 56-year-old ex-Cuban Navy commander whose office is crammed with plaques and awards from various U.S. boating associations.
“Hemingway symbolizes our objectives, because he represents the friendship that existed and still exists between the Cuban and American peoples. Secondly, he’s a symbol because he showed us that recreational boating and love of the sea is the right of everyone.”
Friendship aside, the Castro government covets U.S. yachtsmen because they tend to be wealthy — and because they also hang around much longer than the average tourist. Boats visiting Marina Hemingway in 2001 stayed an average 28 days and had three to five crew members. The United States alone accounted for 69% of the marina’s visitors; nearly all the remainder came from Europe.
According to a report prepared by Escrich and presented at a recent meeting of the International Council of Marine Industry Associations (ICOMIA), the Cuban government foresees developing marinas in three stages.
The first stage, in effect since 1999, consists of widening and improving existing facilities in places like Varadero, Cayo Blanco and Santiago de Cuba. Most of these marinas were built when yachts were smaller, hence the slips are obsolete.
The second stage involves building new facilities: these include Marina Gaviota Vita, Marina Gaviota Cayo Las Brujas and Marina Gaviota Cayo Ensenacho.
“The third stage consists of building new marinas in more remote regions,” he says, “with the objective of creating a national marina network that guarantees a safe and comfortable navigation along Cuba’s coasts.”
Plans call for boosting the number of marinas from 19 to 38, with space for over 6,400 vessels. State entities leading this effort include Puerto Sol, Cubanacán Náutica, Gaviota and Habaguanex.
In 2001, Cuba received 2,083 yachts and other pleasure craft, with Marina Hemingway accounting for 1,155 vessels, or well over half the total. The other facilities, in descending order of port calls, were Cienfuegos (277); Dársena Varadero (206); Marina Vita (113); María La Gorda (66), Coco-Guillermo (57) and Cayo Largo (42).
In 1994, the University of Florida did a study on how the recreational boating industries of both Cuba and Florida would be affected if U.S. citizens were allowed to visit Cuba and spend unlimited amounts of money there.
“The general consensus is that, in the first year after lifting the travel ban, 60,000-80,000 yachts will arrive in Cuba,” said Escrich. “That would produce a gigantic jump in U.S.-Cuba boat traffic. We’re concerned that our marinas won’t be able to handle that much traffic.”
The sudden influx of boaters to Cuba could also help South Florida, said David Ray, executive director of the Miami-based Marine Industries Association of Florida Inc.
Ray says yacht owners from Northeastern states — lured to an island that’s been off-limits to boaters for 45 years — would have to use Florida’s marina facilities on the Intracoastal Waterway and along the state’s southwest Gulf coast on their way down to Cuba.
Terry McCoy, director of UF’s Latin American Business Environment Program, said there’s even more interest in Cuba on the part of recreational boaters than when his office conducted the study 10 years ago.
“There would be tremendous interest by boaters in the southern United States to go to Cuba once it becomes legal, and Cuba is relatively accessible for any boat basically 25 feet and longer,” he said. “Almost everybody has to go through Florida to get to Cuba. If you look at the currents, I don’t think it’s reasonable to go all the way from Texas and Louisiana without stopping in Florida.”
Boating enthusiast Lee E. Lyon owns Maritime Services Group Inc. in Naples, and is a past-president of the Marine Industries Association of Florida.
Lyon, who has sponsored Escrich on previous visits to Florida, says about half of 45 yacht owners his company represents would go to Cuba if the law allowed it. So would thousands of other South Florida boaters, who would bring their families and spend money in the island’s restaurants, museums and souvenir shops.
And it wouldn’t take that long to get there, either. Traveling at 20 knots, the average boating enthusiast can make it from Naples to Key West in five hours; it’s another five hours from Key West to Havana.
Yet McCoy is skeptical.
“I don’t know the extent to which the Cubans are really ready for that,” he said. “They talk a big game, but I don’t think there is a lot of recreational boating down there.”
Escrich says the Hemingway International Yacht Club, founded in 1992, has 1,546 members from 46 countries including the U.S., Italy, Spain, Canada, France and Germany.
Not surprisingly, many of the club’s 400 U.S. members hail from Florida.
“Our club has a long and friendly relationship with the South Florida boating community, and we have members from Tampa, St. Petersburg, Naples, Marco Island, Key West, Fort Myers and Sarasota,” says Escrich, “but from Miami, very few. In Miami, people are afraid to associate with a Cuban yacht club.”
He explained that “after 2000, when President Bush came into office, the regulations became more and more strict. Last year, the International Gamefish Association was told that they could no longer visit Cuba.”
Nevertheless, Escrich is regularly invited to the Miami International Boat Show; he’s done presentations at the Naples Yacht Club and proudly displays the keys to the City of Fort Lauderdale.
He’s also one of the few Cuban officials who’s also an honorary citizen of Key West.
“I’ve been to Florida five times,” said Escrich, whose office is dominated by a huge portrait of Hemingway. “The last time I tried to visit, they denied me a visa. Every time I’ve applied, there’s been some kind of inconvenience. But our friends in the Florida boating industry have always helped me.”