Little Compass Rose Caribbean Compass June 1998

Cuba Says '¡Hola!'

This is the "undiscovered" cruising destination of the Caribbean? Not for long. Cuba's Ministry of Tourism has just discovered the yacht market.

There were over 120 international yachts at Cuba's Marina Hemingway on May 8, 1998. Flags proclaimed Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Argentina and Russia; transoms said Tortola, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Grenada. Two hundred and twenty more yachts, mostly US-flagged, with over a thousand crew aboard were due to arrive in 2 weeks' time on the Florida-to-Cuba Havana Cup race.

But this is a trickle compared to what Cubans hope will come. Cuba has already experienced one revolution when some people arrived by yacht. Four decades ago, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their compatriots came ashore from the yacht Granma after a passage from Mexico, and the rest is history. Another, albeit minor, yacht-borne revolution is about to take place. Last month, at Cuba's annual Tourism Convention, it was announced that tourism is now "the engine that drives the nation's economy," and that nautical tourism will be made a key part of this driving force.

This year, for the first time in its 19-year history, Cuba's Convención de Turismo contained a yachting component. A special 2-day conference on "The Caribbean: A Paradise for Cruising and Yachting," was included in the week-long event and a mini-exposition at the simultaneous trade fair was devoted to the marine sector. As Cuba's Tourism Minister Osmany Cienfuegos announced at the opening press conference, "We have discovered the sea."

Convención de Turismo Cuba '98, held May 11 to 15, was attended by over 1,600 delegates from 63 countries. The nautical tourism conference, which discussed a variety of issues facing both Cuba and the Caribbean yachting scene as a whole, took place May 12 and 13. During the conference, 19 presentations were given by people involved in various aspects of the recreational boating industry. The talks were moderated by José Miguel Diaz Escrich, Commodore of Cuba's Club Náutico Internacional Hemingway de la Habana, a tireless supporter of yachting tourism in Cuba and an ardent believer in the ever-widening Caribbean "sailing family."

Among the conference speakers were representatives of boating industry groups such as the Marine Manufacturers' Association, the International Marina Institute and the US National Clean Boating Campaign, as well as individuals from marine businesses such as Westrec marina developers, the Italia-Prima cruiseship line, and SeaTow ocean rescue and environmental clean-up service. The conservationist message delivered by Caribbean Compass' presentation on the importance of preserving "paradise" in sustainable sailing tourism was reiterated in the speeches given by representatives of the Caribbean Billfish Foundation and the Cuban Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment. The respective presidents of the Ligue de Voile of Martinique and the Transcaraibe des Passiones (a Martinique-to-Cuba yacht rally scheduled for March 1999) spoke on the role of regional sailing events not only in tourism but as a force for Caribbean integration.

The point was made at the conference that recreational boating is a growth industry, and it was made apparent that Cuba intends to be a serious player. Despite the Helms-Burton "trading with the enemy" act which forbids US citizens from spending money in Cuba, the wave of international "yatistas" reaching the Caribbean's largest island is expected to grow rapidly.

Among the many visiting Canadians and Europeans, one typical US cruiser who arrived at Marina Hemingway last month after a "perfect 48-hour passage" from Mexico's Isla Mujeres said, "We came to Cuba because we wanted to come. We had two other boats we were buddy-boating with in Central America who elected not to come because of the US government's policy. That's their decision, but we wanted to see Cuba for ourselves. We even took down our American flag before we came in because we thought there might be some anti-US feeling, but all the officials were very friendly and welcoming and courteous, and spoke English."

Another American "rebel" cruising couple confessed that "part of the reason we came is because we were told not to. We've seen up to eighty US vessels at the marina at one time. The real yachting revolution is going to come when even more people say `we are not paying attention to this law'."

A fleet of ten US sportsfishing boats arrived May 9 from Key West. One boatowner said, "I've been coming here for the past four years. The fishing is great; we'll go anyplace there are marlin. The US government can't tell us where we can't go. Freedom that's what we fought for. But I'll admit, I kinda like the embargo; it keeps the jerks out. More boats coming to Cuba? They can hardly handle the ones they've got already!"

But they're working on it. Norman Medina of the Ministry of Tourism says that Cuba aims to complete a chain of marinas strategically located nationwide, and is currently improving and expanding repair and maintenance facilities. "We know we cannot have a strong recreational boating industry unless we have the ability to carry out repairs," he says.

Marlin Marinas y Nauticas is one of Cuba's largest marine recreation development companies which includes marinas, dive shops, day charter and watersports businesses, and is now developing the fledgling term-charter yacht business on Cuba's south coast. Juan Carlos Martínez Martínez, Marlin's Director General, says "We are open to receiving yachtsmen. There are now eight international marinas with Customs and Immigration facilities where yachts can enter Cuba. These are at Marina Hemingway near Havana, Darsena and Gaviota at Varadero, Jucaro at Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Santiago de Cuba, Maria Gorda and Cayo Largo." He adds that these marinas can be reached by VHF channel 72 or 16 before arrival, so personnel can guide you in and begin to prepare your despacho. Visas, if required, can be purchased at the international marinas. There is no limit to the length of time a yacht may stay; if crew must leave (for example, some nationalities may only stay 30 or 60 days at a stretch) the yacht may be left at a marina.

Cuban marina operators realize that yacht visitors are inconvenienced by time-consuming entry procedures, and this problem is currently under discussion with the authorities. There is reason for hope for improvement: A representative of the Ministry of Tourism pointed out at the convention that "Any time we have suggested a change in legislation with regard to facilitation of cash flow into Cuba by tourism, it has been done. We are constantly improving our legislation and will continue to do so without hesitation."

As Cuban yachting infrastructure develops, there is no doubt chartering here will become popular and even more private yachts of all nationalities will visit. A cruiser at Marina Hemingway said, "More American cruisers would definitely come here if the US government said `go and enjoy yourselves.' We've talked to lots of cruisers recently who would like to come here but are dissuaded by the US government's attitude."

How many is "lots"? A recent study by a Florida university indicates that when the US embargo against Cuba is dropped (which many observers predict is likely to happen within the next 5 years at most), some 200,000 American yachts will visit Cuba. As Trinidad & Tobago found out when recently opening their doors to cruisers, it's hard to be completely ready for your first major assault, and this is recognized: As one Cuban tourism official remarked at the convention, "We're not in any hurry for the blockade to end, but we know it will not be eternal so we have time to prepare. We've been working on it."

If you want to be assured all Cuban marinas are fine-tuned down to the last cable-TV outlet, wait until after the Yankee masses have come and given the marina operators a real workout. But if you want to see Cuba before the yachting revolution, better go now.

Copyright© 1998 Compass Publishing