How Travel Restrictions to Cuba Affects U.S. Superyachts

17 June 2019 By Laura Dunn

The U.S. Department of State reported on June 4 that U.S. travel to Cuba would be restricted. “Passenger and recreational vessels” are banned from traveling to Cuba, including yachts, cruise ships, and private and corporate planes, effective June 5. This “people-to-people” license that let Americans travel to Cuba for educational and religious reasons, is over.

Though the people-to-people license — which permitted travels to travel via group educational and cultural trips — was the most popular way that Americans traveled to Cuba, there are still plenty of ways for a trip to Cuba to happen. For example, according to The New York Times, “Under 'support for the Cuban people' category, individuals can travel to Cuba, but they must have an itinerary filled with meetings and visits with local business owners, artists, or others. They must plan on participating in local activities and staying in a private home, instead of a hotel.” In other words, you can't merely go to hang out at the beach.

The Trump administration also ended an educational travel program. According to the State Department, this is a response to the Cuban government’s repression of its citizens, as well as a protest against the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

While there are far more strict regulations, Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba, particularly if they have family in Cuba or if they need to travel to Cuba for business or philanthropic reasons. Furthermore, if consumers booked a trip there before June 5, they should be fine to continue with their travel plans. Additionally, there are 11 U.S. permit options — there used to be 12 — that grant travelers access to Cuba. Beyond family visits, business purposes, and humanitarian efforts, it’s still possible to visit for other reasons, like for religious or journalistic endeavors.

“With the new mandates for Cuba, it only impacts U.S. flagged vessels,” says Kitty McGowan, president of the U.S. Superyacht Association. She adds that the number of U.S. flagged vessels traveling to the island has been on the increase in the past few years but that in reality, from a superyacht and U.S. flag boats side, it probably only impacts 20 vessels.

“A lot of the crew and the guests,” says McGowan, “spend time and money and resources on the island, and that is going to significantly impact the island. With regards to the United States, that’s the beautiful thing about yachts: there’s lots of other places to go.” As for Cuba, it will hurt the island far more. “Not so much the country as much as the people,” McGowan says. Having been there herself, McGowan comments that the people there are very resourceful and they have a mindset of, “Okay, we have boats coming in, what can I do to help make their stay better and make me some money?”

According to a recent news report, McGowan says more than 250,000 U.S. citizens visited Cuba from January through March of this year. “So now you figure the economic impact of 250,000 people and what they spend on a trip? Do the math. That kind of economic pressure is going to hurt, because now they’ve had it,” she explains, saying that these travel restrictions will be felt on a massive level. On the other hand, the U.S. will likely be fine. “So when you talk about superyachts versus general tourism, it’s not going to be that significant. I think the beneficiary is going to be The Bahamas and Mexico.”

The International SeaKeepers Society is taking the recent changes into consideration. As Michael T. Moore, an attorney and the chairman of the board of SeaKeepers, told Boat International, they will process each vessel as they’re presented to them. “We have always processed each vessel as if the rules have changed since the last trip,” Moore says. “This has been our successful formula for almost 300 yachts who wished to and did visit and return from Cuba without incident.”

Presently, SeaKeepers did have one incident involving a yacht that visited Cuba under the guidance of an organization that considers itself an expert on trips to Cuban. No permits were obtained. “On its return, the vessel’s document has been confiscated and its application for a cruising permit has been denied,” Moore told Boat International, adding that the yacht is flagged “offshore.” All members of the crew of three are American nationals. The beneficial owner is a Mexican National.

“At this time, we are investigating what was done, what was not done, and what happened. We will then seek to have the yacht cleared and a cruising permit issued,” says Moore. “Our policy going forward will be to have the trips approved, as we have always done, by Department of Commerce, Department of Treasury, and Department of Homeland Security. We will then have trip by Vessel’s Underwriters.”

As he says, by going through the processes the right way, there should be no problem.