Cuba fears 'tens of thousands' of US yachts: Official

Tens of thousands of American yachts could descend on Cuba if US President Barack Obama authorises boat travel to the island, which is not ready for the influx, an official said Wednesday. -- PHOTO: BOAT ASIA EXHIBITION
Tens of thousands of American yachts could descend on Cuba if US President Barack Obama authorises boat travel to the island, which is not ready for the influx, an official said Wednesday. -- PHOTO: BOAT ASIA EXHIBITION

HAVANA (AFP) - Tens of thousands of American yachts could descend on Cuba if US President Barack Obama authorises boat travel to the island, which is not ready for the influx, an official said Wednesday.

Pleasure cruises from the United States to Cuba have virtually halted since former president George W. Bush cracked down on private boat trips in 2004 with an executive order that expanded the government's authority to stop unauthorised travel out of US waters.

That "is the only impediment today" stopping a mass arrival of American yachts and pleasure cruisers, said Jose Miguel Diaz Escrich, commodore of the Ernest Hemingway International Nautical Club in Havana.

"The first year the executive order restricting boat trips is lifted, tens of thousands of vessels could come," he told AFP.

But Cuba "is not prepared (for) the large influx" and will have to take action to develop its port infrastructure, he said.

"There are no marinas prepared, there are no shipyards or nautical supply stores." He said a mass arrival of US yachts could force the communist island to develop the sector, however.

He also predicted record-breaking attendance at the next Ernest Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament, to be held in May.

Named for the US Nobel Prize-winning author, who lived in Cuba for two decades, the tournament has been held since 1950.

Since the US and Cuba announced a historic rapprochement last December after more than five decades of enmity rooted in the Cold War, the White House has eased travel restrictions on 12 categories of visits, including trips for journalism, education, the arts and sports - but not tourism.

Currently, travelers from the United States to Cuba must take chartered "humanitarian" flights, since Washington has barred commercial flights to the island since 1962.

Diaz Escrich said local officials in Key West, Florida, have expressed interest in reestablishing ferry service between the US and Cuba.

The ferry across the Florida Straits was popular with US tourists until it was scrapped in the wake of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.