2 months ago


Maria Romeu, of Cuba VIP

Maria Romeu, of Cuba VIP Yachts: Cuba is happening for luxury boaters Top: Marina Varadero. Bottom: Marina Hemingway Michael Moore, Miami-based maritime attorney: The first desire of the ultra high-net worth client is to do things legally None of this has been lost on the U.S. yachting community, which in the last two years has re-discovered the Cuban coast— ever since new OFAC regulations in 2015 permitted U.S. vessels to legally enter Cuban waters. “Cuba is happening, and it is happening for the luxury yachts,” says Maria Romeu, who, as general manager of Cuba Tours and Travel's yacht division Cuba VIP Yachts, has brought down more than three dozen vessels to the island. “It didn’t really start to boom until this past season, October onward. Since then, especially since January, it’s been explosive.” Prior to the 2015 openings engineered by executive order from the Obama White House, American yachts had been denied access for more than a half century—a far cry from how it was before the Revolution. “It became a mystery to anyone from the U.S.,” says Romeu. “No one had been navigating luxury yachts to Cuba for 57 years, whereas previously there had been hundreds of yachting clubs.” In 1959, for example the Biltmore Yacht and Country Club in Havana had 4,800 American members. “Recreational yachting was an enormous industry in Cuba,” she says. While today’s numbers are still a far cry from the zenith of U.S. yachting to Cuba in the 1950s, they still represent a sharply growing re-engagement with the island nation by America’s yachting elite. “It began in August 2015, and accelerated in the middle of 2016,” says Michael Moore, a Miami-based maritime attorney who specializes in legal compliance for yachts plying Cuban waters and marinas. “We have done 170 yachts so far, and have about 43 in the pipeline.” What makes Moore uniquely able to assure compliance is that he is also chairman of the board of the International Sea- Keepers Society, a nonprofit founded in 1998 and dedicated to protecting the ecology of coastal waters worldwide. “Every yacht that comes through Moore and Company goes down to Cuba under the SeaKeepers’ umbrella,” says Moore. By so doing, the yachts come under one of the 12 sanctioned exceptions for visitors to Cuba—in this case, research. Every yacht carries out some mission to help protect the coastline and reefs of Cuba. Some complete tasks involving monitoring and photography, others carry scientists onboard. “One of the primary missions is to give rides to scientists. We are the Uber of the seas for scientists,” says Moore. Other activities are more hands-on. “One of our yacht owners is photographing a one-mile living reef in the Jardines de la Reina [Gardens of the Queen, a protected marine park off the southern coast of Cuba]. He wants to completely map it to create a baseline to monitor the health of that reef system.” Moore says that his clients, by and large, are philanthropic. “When you are sitting on a $30 million yacht, your life is no longer about making money. It’s about doing interesting things, and it’s about doing good.” It’s also about complying with legal regulations, because, among other things, insurance only covers legal activity. “When you start off with ultra-high net worth people, their first desire is to do everything legally,” says Moore. While Moore provides a legal framework for U.S. yachts that want to discover the secrets of Cuba’s coves and go inland from its marinas, the travel arrangements themselves are handled by a handful of officially licensed TSPs—Travel Service Providers— who specialize in yachting to Cuba. Rhode Island-based Paul Madden & Associates, for instance, has a license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to provide travel services to Cuba. His firm received its license in July, 2015—about the same time that Carnival Cruises did—and since then “that’s been our entire focus,” says Madden. In the first year of catering to the Cuba-bound, Madden says most of his business was in chartering yachts for their owners. In the last year it has shifted to making arrangements for the yacht owners themselves. “What normally happens is they hire us and we hold their hands and make all their arrangements, from U.S. Coast Guard permitting to declarations for Cuban customs, to visa compliance for shore-side excursions,” says Madden. Other services include navigation plans, ground transportation, and private inland activities. “These tend to be large yachts, sophisticated clients who have been around the world and done everything already. So they are very demanding about what they want to do,” says Madden. “They tell us what they want to do and we tell them what they can do.” Like other providers of high-end services, the companies that cater to Cuba-bound yachts work with service providers on the island, either independent ‘tour receptors’ or a government agency such as Havanatur. The trips are then customized for what clients want, ranging from meetings with high-level communist party officials, to encounters with artists, to anchorage on quiet beaches or near a small coastal village. “Cuba has a plethora of culture,” says Romeu. “Some want to experience that in private events, and some want to go out and dance with the Cubans.” For her clients that want to sail to the north coast of Cuba, activities range from architectural tours of Havana to visits to tobacco plantations (“cigars and tobacco are big interests,” she says). Alternately, the southern coast of Cuba offers an archipelago of islands and perfectly preserved reefs. For these trips, owners will fly to Ceinfuegoes or Santiago de Cuba to board their yachts there. “Owners are interested in the marine life of Cuba, especially on the south coast, and we work under the auspices of the Seakeepers association,” says Romeu. “They get involved to protect the marine environment, interacting with scientists and ecologists, and they scuba dive, experiencing the underwater life of the [south coast] archipelagos.” Fees for such services start at around $2,000 per person per week, “and can get as expensive as someone wants to get.” The cost to operate the yachts belongs to the clients. “The range of the client profile is quite broad,” says Romeu. “We have had some very high profile clients, some eccentric clients, some simple clients, and some wealthy families. We will do anything that is within the law. We respect the laws of Cuba. We are very respectful of things there in general.” H 60 CUBATRADE MAY 2017 MAY 2017 CUBATRADE 61