Mass of American boaters expected after normalization of relations
Click here or scroll down to see the plan for finished marina
By PETER SWANSON
Cuba Cruising Net
Published Dec. 24, 2011
Anticipating the end of the travel ban, Cuban state enterprises responsible for marine infrastructure have begun an unprecedented push to ready the island nation for American boaters. One estimate says 60,000 U.S. vessels will visit Cuba in the first year, post Embargo. Though the number may seem high, leaders in government and business in the Bahamas and the Caribbean take this figure seriously judging by their often-expressed fears that Cuba will siphon away American mariners and their dollars once the ban is lifted.
But Cuba has only 789 transient slips, most concentrated in the three marinas closest to Florida—Marina Hemingway in Havana, Marina Gaviota Varadero and Marina Darsena Varadero. Havana, of course, is associated with the classic cars, cigars and Cuban music scene. Varadero, about 80 miles east of the capital, is Cuba’s version of Cape Cod, the Jersey Shore and Florida Keys all rolled into one. The rest of country has just 12 additional marinas spread over a 3,000-mile coastline and interspersed between vast areas of mangroves, pasture, wooded shores and undeveloped pocket bays.
The “corporate” structure of Cuba’s marina system is twofold. All marinas in Cuba are operated by either the Marlin Group or Gaviota. Marlin’s director reports to the Ministry of Tourism, whose development of that economic sector was crucial in sustaining the Cuban nation after Soviet subsidies ended in 1989. Gaviota’s lineage suggests even greater clout; it is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Castro military.
Recent actions by each of these government enterprises underscore the seriousness with which Cuba regards “nautical tourism” from the United States.
One decision was the appointment last summer of Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich as director of the Marlin Group. To the marine industry on our side of the Florida Straits, Escrich is better known as the avuncular commodore of the Hemingway International Yacht Club in Havana, which he founded with Fidel Castro’s blessing in 1992.
Escrich, 62, will continue at the helm of his club, but is now responsible for 2,000 employees, 400 tourist excursion vessels and a hodge-podge of docking facilities around the country, including Marina Hemingway at Havana and seven other transient marinas. His job is to bring the facilities up to snuff as best he can with limited resources, while courting foreign investors.
Cuba’s other decision is more concrete—literally. With little fanfare, Gaviota has been working on an ambitious expansion of its Varadero marina. When finished, Gaviota Varadero will accommodate more boats than Marina Puerto del Rey in Puerto Rico, currently the biggest in the Caribbean. Gaviota Varadero will have 1,200 slips, including berths for six megayachts over 195 feet LOA.
Loathe to discuss politics, Escrich says he admires American business for its pragmatism and its individual citizens for their generous spirit. “We all know that American tourism is the best kind of tourism for our country, he said.
His efforts have earned him as seat at the table where decisions are made about government policy toward foreign boaters. Escrich is part of a “working group” of Cuban officials that meets regularly to discuss nautical tourism. Not only do they talk about new marina sites and expansion of existing marinas but general issues such as recreational fishing permits and Cuba’s famously burdensome port clearance procedures.
In a recent interview, Escrich promised that he would continue to be an advocate for foreign boaters. Asked whether it was possible that Cuba will adopt a more streamlined cruising permit system like that of the Bahamas, he said not right away but reckoned reform was inevitable. “I know this system of ours bothers yacht people. And I do not entirely agree with the system either,” Escrich said. “The minister of tourism is aware of the problem, too, so our ‘working group’ looking at nautical issues will try to come up with a something else that preserves Cuban security without bothering people.”
In the meantime, as part of its services to members, Escrich said the Hemingway Yacht Club will provide Cuban officials along a vessel’s “float plan” with enough information to speed up the paperwork at each planned stop.
Escrich spends his work day shuffling between the yacht club and his Marlin office next door at the Marina Hemingway, The Marlin Group’s most important property. Marina Hemingway offers roughly 400 side-tie berths, just a 25-minute cab ride from the sights of downtown Havana. It undoubtedly will become the epicenter of American boating in Cuba because many skippers will be satisfied to go no further than Havana, crossing the Gulf Stream to do a little fishing and explore before heading back to Florida.
There are probably berths for fewer than 20 megayachts in all of Cuba, excluding shipyards and commercial docks. Of those Marina Hemingway can accept several 200-footers, a length limitation imposed by a turn after the entrance channel. Once docked along one of the four canals (a total of 4 miles of side-tie dockage), a big yacht will have to back out until it reaches the turning basin. Escrich said there is a major plan to redevelop the entire facility into a hotel-marina destination with the help of a foreign partner; part of that plan would make it easier for big yachts to enter and exit the facility, which was originally designed as a 1950s residential development, not a marina.
The expansion of Marina Gaviota at Varadero, 90 miles from the Florida Keys, is intended to help augment facilities for big recreational vessels. Visiting in July, one would have witnessed a scene impossible to imagine in contemporary America. Massive breakwaters had already been built, and heavy equipment was removing the mangroves inside these enveloping stone arms, then piling the dredge spoil to create artificial islands.
Escrich said the Gaviota project was being done without foreign investment, though the accompanying 5-star villa hotel development is the work of the same French company that has built several other luxury hotels at Varadero. Plans show a marina complex more akin to Atlantis at Nassau in the Bahamas or St. Tropez in France, only larger. By next year, Gaviota hopes to have 400 slips available for foreign vessels. By Stage 3 of the project in 2012, the complex will have more than 1,200 slips at state-of-the-art floating, concrete docks, including berths for six 200-foot megayachts. Also open for business is the marina’s new waterfront restaurant, Kike-Keho, already one of Cuba’s finest.
At the other extreme of the Varadero watefront is the Marina Darsena, operated by Escrich’s Marlin Group. Escrich and Marlin managers also have developed plans to increase Darsena’s capacity from 104 to 500 slips in three phases. Escrich says he is seeking $11 million in foreign investment for the project. Although the resort lacks some of Havana’s cachet, Escrich argued that unlike the capital, Varadero is a staging area for cruising Cardenas and Santa Clara bays, which form a protected basin.
“I know some yachtsmen do not like the beach resort nature of Varadero, but besides restaurants and nightlife, and a golf course, the area is a gateway to very unspoiled cruising among numerous nearby cays,” Escrich said.
During a 10-year “thaw” in U.S.-Cuba relations prior to the administration of George W. Bush, many American vessels participated in regattas and fishing tournaments, having been granted special U.S. permission to attend. At the same time, slack U.S. enforcement encouraged many yachtsmen to visit Cuba using various subterfuges.
During this period, according to Escrich, 70 percent of more than 2,500 foreign yachts that visited Cuba annually flew the Stars and Stripes. After the Bush administration cracked down in February 2004, the number of foreign yachts dropped dramatically.
Cuba has numerous plans for new marinas large and small, including one with 55 slips at Baracoa, the easternmost city on the North Coast of Cuba, and the oldest. Baracoa used to be a port of entry but not anymore. Foreign boats approaching from Puerto Rico are discouraged from entering the harbor and told they must continue on to Puerto Vita, about 100 nautical miles further west.
Baracoa and other projects have been on hold due to the enduring U.S. travel ban, which denied foreign investors their natural market. Canadian and Europeans boaters, though unaffected by the U.S. embargo, are small in number compared to their counterparts on East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. Now, those foreign investors are starting to show renewed interest, and those dusty marina plans are coming off the shelves.