Boating and Cuba: Speaking in hypotheticals

Photo courtesy of Julie Balzano

In a two-part series this week, we will be discussing the improving of relations between the U.S. and Cuba and what this could mean for the boating industry. Today, we cover the present state of affairs with Cuba and where the industry currently stands, and on Thursday, April 16, we will discuss what opportunities could be open to the industry in the future.

President Barack Obama announced in December that the United States would be establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Many industries have seen this improvement of relations as an opportunity to expand their businesses in the island nation.

However, it is important that businesses learn more about Cuba without rumor or hearsay, as much of the information the U.S. has known regarding Cuba over the past 50 or more years has not been perfect.

Henrik Hartvig-Laursen, president of Miami Nautique International, was among the dealers and manufacturers who attended a research trip in August 2014 to Cuba, hosted by the National Marine Manufacturers Association. His intention was to learn more about the culture and people of Cuba, as he plans to get his business’s products to Cuba as soon as legally possible.

“You could make a day trip from Florida in a 30-foot boat, and you’d have white sandy beaches, turquoise water, great culture, great food, great music, amazing diving. The place is a gold mine and it’s really going to take some serious business away from the other Caribbean islands once it opens,” said Laursen. “I see a huge potential of doing a lot of business there.”

However, businesses that are eager to build a presence in Cuba need to remember that a trade embargo is still in place and that while a short list of exports are now legal, none of them pertain to the marine industry.

Julie Balzano, export development director at the NMMA, said that any plans to expand opportunities for the boating industry are purely hypothetical until the trade embargo is lifted and it is unlikely to happen in the next year as it requires an act of Congress and the Helms-Burton Act, which governs the trade embargo, is an incredibly complex law.

“Even if we were to have full support of Congress in lifting the embargo, the sheer magnitude of having to go through each and every component of the Helms-Burton Act that would enable us to lift the trade embargo would take longer than a year,” said Balzano. “Theoretically, the trade embargo could be lifted, but that doesn’t mean establishing a private enterprise in Cuba will be allowed or supported by the Cuban government.”

Laursen suggests industry stakeholders contact their legislator and encourage them to push forward any legislation that would improve relations with Cuba, ease travel restrictions and work to lift the embargo.

“I think that the boating industry has an unlimited amount of opportunities if [travel and the embargo] open up, and in all branches of the boating industry they need to put as much pressure on as possible and get this opened as soon as possible. It’s going to benefit everybody in the industry,” said Laursen.

For companies that believe Cuba could provide opportunities for their businesses should the embargo be lifted, Balzano recommends educating themselves now about the island and its people, understanding the culture and the potential so that, when and if the time comes, marine businesses can react quickly because they’ve already done their due diligence and the initial research work needed to execute an effective strategy.

“That is the premise behind why we led our two research trips to Cuba: We wanted to provide our members who were interested with an opportunity to educate themselves on the potential to learn about the island, the people, to be able to assess the strategy that they might want to implement and really to develop all of that from a place of knowledge rather than hearsay,” said Balzano.


  1. What about dealers in South Florida? is the MIASF organizing a trip to Cuba?

    • Brianna Liestman

      As of right now, MIASF does not have any plans to organize a trip to Cuba, based on my sources. There is a shortage of accommodations infrastructure in Cuba at this time, so the island is often booked very quickly and may be why nothing is on the books yet. I would suggest reaching out to the MIASF directly and asking about any plans they may have and voicing your interest.

  2. I was in Cuba during the last week in February and I am going back in May. My only objective is to establish contacts and build personal relationships.
    I am helping Commodore Escrich build memberships in the Hemingway Yacht Club (I am a member) and helping Tania,the commercial director of Gaviota Marina, get some U.S. groups to participate in thier divers underwater photography competition in June.

    I am also bringing one of my colleagues with me who is a Marine Engineer and we plan to look at Hemingway, Gaviota and some other marina projects. While we are there. We will also spend sometime at the fishing tournament that will be held at the Hemingway Marina.

    The economic health of Cuba will mainly be based on tourism, including yachting tourism. I believe the main tourism market will be from the U.S. Once the embargo is lifted. One luxury travel publication rates Cuba as the up and coming top travel destination in the Caribbean.

    However, If the embargo was lifted tomorrow, Cuba currently would not be able to handle the onslaught of land and yachting tourism from the U.S. Even now it is hard getting a hotel reservation.

    There is no doubt in my mind that Cuba will be a hot spot for the U.S. pleasure boating industry.

    It won’t happen tomorrow – but it will happen.

    By the way, it is legal to travel to Cuba for US citizens as long as it is not for tourism. There are twelve categories that are legal and you need to sign an affidavit as to one of them. You no longer need a license from OFAC.

    • Brianna Liestman

      You are right on track, Richard. Much of what you mentioned will be covered in part two on Thursday if you would like to read more.

    • Keep the Spade Anchor in mind as we offer Skrew Moorings that are inexpensive, and environmentally safe. We are based in FL so we are ready to go when the gates open in Cuba.

  3. Absoulutely! I will definitely read on? And thanks for writing on this important subject for the marine industry. I have spent over a year researching all aspects of Cuba and have an extensive file on Cuba, including it’s history, culture and current moves by the government to bring in outside investment through JV’s. If anyone thinks when the embargo is lifted they are just going to jump on a plane and open up a business in Cuba — it ain’t going to happen.

  4. Visiting Cuba is an eye and mind-opening experience. I traveled with Cultural Contrast, an organization that has led licensed trips to Cuba for 25 years. It is led by 2 very educated and culturally aware men who can show visitors a unique view of the country. Please look for my articles on my trip in the May issue of Fort Lauderdale Magazine and the June issue of INVICTUS. Agreeing with all the above, the potential is great, the obstacles are many…

  5. Over the years I’ve been contacted by several vessel operators who want to set up a ferry/cargo company from Florida to Cuba, thinking they’ll get instantly rich doing so. And we all hear a lot about how unspoiled and beautiful it is. As for doing business there, if the figures touted for the average wages are true, it seems to me someone will have to lend the Cubans a lot of money if they are going to be buying anything that we can routinely afford. That’s not to say they don’t have the drive to develop their wealth-just look at how the Miami skyline has changed in the last 20 years, and the Cuban immigrants have been largely involved. But I think developing the economic infrastructure along the lines of the Chinese, for example, that will allow anyone to succeed in business there may take a while. After all, in spite of not trading with the U.S. but trading with the rest of the world, there’s not a lot to show for economic progress there since the revolution. It may be a one-way street for quite a while.

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