BY KIM KAVIN
Brokers are racing to fill demand for the previously off-limits Caribbean island.
Brokers can’t answer the phones fast enough. As one put it, “Clients out the wazoo are clamoring to go.” Ever since President Obama announced a new policy of engagement with Cuba last December, vacation-seekers have been calling to book charter yachts there—wanting to be the first Americans in years to cruise legally in the unspoiled paradise of great snorkeling, monster game-fishing and stunning scenery.
Getting yachts organized to accept the bookings last summer, however, was taking more time than early adopters would have liked. As of late July, leading charter brokers in South Florida were still trying to untangle the web of legal, insurance and other hurdles that stand in the way. If you asked three brokers, you’d get three answers about when charter yachts will be available in Cuba for U.S. citizens. Some thought this winter, some thought next winter and some were thinking sometime in between.
Paul Madden of Paul Madden Associates in Palm Beach, Florida, was among the brokers taking a leadership role. Last July, the U.S. Treasury Department granted him a license to convey qualified U.S. citizens to Cuba on crewed charter vessels. He was the only yacht broker to receive the license as of this writing, he says; other companies that had received them by late July included ferry agencies and Carnival Cruise Lines.
Carnival caught the yacht charter industry’s attention because it immediately announced plans to begin offering vacations in Cuba in March 2016—carefully calling them “people-to-people tours,” because even with the new U.S. policy, leisure travel to Cuba remains banned. And even with the licenses, which apply primarily to vessel use, companies can offer travel to Cuba only by U.S. citizens who meet one of 12 criteria, which include family visits, journalism, educational activities and humanitarian projects.
“We can only take people who are a resident or passport-holding citizen of the United States, and we can’t take them on a yacht unless they have a visa under the 12 reasons,” Madden says. “So with the license, we could go down there with the yacht, but we wouldn’t necessarily have people on board.”
Given the 12 criteria, Carnival has been promoting not what most people would consider typical cruise itineraries, but instead “onboard social impact-related activities” and shoreside “cultural immersion activities”—and yacht charter experts are watching keenly to see how that works out. Madden made a presentation in late July to members of the Charter Professionals Committee of the Florida Yacht Brokers Association, to discuss how his company’s license might work for their clients as well as for yacht owners wanting to do a similar promotion.
“The real hang-up is that the legitimate charter as we know it—a vacation—the 12 points don’t usually apply,” said Daphne D’Offay, a committee member and charter manager with Ocean Independence. “We’re all waiting to see what happens when Carnival starts bringing boats there in March and all these people have to prove they’ve had really structured days.”
LeAnn Morris Pliske, a longtime charter broker with International Yacht Collection, visited Cuba in July and applied for the same license that Madden had already secured, trying to determine how to meet the unprecedented demand she is seeing while remaining within the law.
“In theory, you could go now, but it’s so new that nobody really knows how to do it,” Pliske said. "Soon, it’s not going to be a big deal. Everybody will be able to go.”
Madden, whose company manages only a handful of yachts, has offered his services to FYBA members who represent a large number of charter yacht owners. Many were skeptical, he said. “They’re very comfortable doing what they’re doing,” he said, “but their customers and their owners all want to go to Cuba.”
Earlier this summer, maritime attorneys were determining how to apply Madden’s Cuba license to existing charter and insurance contracts.
“In this case, I will be sourcing the yachts through other management companies, although I must say, some owners have called me directly to offer their yachts,” Madden says of boats from 70 to 300-plus feet LOA. “They want to go, and they want their boat to work down there.”
Since then, of course, more brokers have followed suit and are now beginning to offer charter future bookings to Cuba for interested clients, some as early as December.
Pliske and d’Offay say they are not seeing that kind of demand among yacht owners who do charter business with their companies, but given the pent-up interest among potential clients, both felt confident that the legalities would be worked out soon, if not in time for this winter’s Caribbean charter season, then perhaps by summer 2016 and most likely by next winter. Cuba simply has so much to offer—six colonial-era ports, 3,000 miles of coastline and more than 4,000 islands, plus scenery and culture that feels like the Caribbean of the 1950s, not to mention easy cruising distance from Florida—that it is all but sure to enjoy a massive spike in charter business once the red tape is under control.
“It is the next place to go,” Pliske said, spellbound by what she saw during her recent fact-finding visit. “It is unspoiled. Now, Havana is a big city with all the problems of a big city, but the ocean and the fishing—I have never seen coral so alive. These guys aren’t fishing on boats. They’re fishing on inner tubes. There’s no such thing as overfishing. The sportfish guys I talked to, they were catching eight marlin a day. Can you even imagine that happening on a charter?”