The Cuba strategy

Cuba is already the Caribbean’s second biggest tourism destination, by visitor numbers. As the US government relaxes its decades-old restrictions on travel to Cuba, what happens to tourism in the rest of the region? How are other islands preparing? Erline Andrews finds out

Beautifully maintained classic cars, a common sight on the streets of Havana. Photo by ToskanaINC/Shutterstock.com

Cuba, the island best known for its fifty-year feud with the United States, is also a popular tourist destination, attracting around three million visitors last year, a number topped in the Caribbean only by the Dominican Republic. People are drawn by the combination of beautiful tropical beaches with charming small-town-Europe architecture. Then there’s the taboo mystique of a country that some vilify as staunchly as others glorify.

Cuba has been improving its tourism game since the early 1990s, a substitute for the economic support it previously got from the Soviet Union. In 2015, a record 1.7 million visitors landed on the island in the first four months of the year, most from Canada, the rest from Europe and Latin America. But for decades, travel from a certain large nearby country has been highly restricted.

Things changed this year, when the administration of US President Barack Obama loosened travel and commerce sanctions against Cuba as part of a broader rapprochement. While travel for tourism remains banned, the reasons Americans are allowed to visit Cuba have been expanded. Between January and July 2015, 89,000 Americans visited Cuba, according to a study by the University of Havana. That’s a fifty-four per cent increase over the same period last year.

Some folks think it’s time for Cuba’s neighbours in the Caribbean to worry that the island — only ninety miles off the coast of Florida — can pose a serious competitive threat. “There are some people that take this ostrich perspective and bury their heads in the sand, and say this isn’t a problem that’s going to affect us. Or that it’s not going to affect us in the short term,” says Emil Lee, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. But he adds, “You’re already seeing an impact. Cruise lines are already starting to move vessels towards Cuba. You’re seeing that tour operators have a ‘Cuba strategy.’ You’re seeing airlines looking at moving equipment towards Cuba as well.”

“In our opinion, it is just a question of time and to what degree,” says Lee of the impact of the easing of American travel restrictions to Cuba. Last June, the CHTA published a report on Cuba predicting that the removal of US travel restrictions will be “the biggest and most disruptive pebble to be dropped into the Caribbean pool in fifty years.” The report includes a graph showing the steady increase of Cuba’s tourist market share over the past two decades. It suggests that other islands may be surprised by how “sophisticated and effective the Cuban marketing machine has become.”

Although most experts don’t expect a complete removal of the US embargo against Cuba any time soon, the CHTA report warns that the possibility of further loosening of sanctions could have a “chilling effect” on investment across the region “as developers take a wait and see position on the opportunities that Cuba may present.” While the countries nearest Cuba — who would compete with it for American tourists — would be most affected, other countries should be concerned, the report warns. “The consequences might be more muted,” the report says of the impact on destinations less dependent on American tourists. “But in the end, the total Caribbean travel landscape will be changed forever.”

 

In spite of the warning, Caribbean tourism officials don’t seem worried. At least not yet. The Caribbean Tourism Organisation says it sees the loosening of sanctions against Cuba as “a welcome opportunity to increase tourist arrivals to the Caribbean.” CTO chair Richard Sealy, who is also Barbados’s tourism minister, expanded on the statement to The Amsterdam News, explaining that he expects the removal of Britain’s tax on travel tickets will increase visitors to the region. “Data collected by the CTO’s research department thus far indicate that the Caribbean is moving in the right direction as it relates to cruise visits, long-stay arrivals and tourism spend,” Sealy said.

Larry Basham, chief operating officer of Elite Island Resorts, which operates in five destinations in the English-speaking Caribbean, wrote last December that prior to the imposition of the embargo in 1962, tourism in Cuba did not hold back the growth of tourism in the rest of the region, and there’s no reason the lifting of sanctions should have a bad effect now. “At the end of the day,” he adds in an interview with Caribbean Beat, “people go to the English-speaking Caribbean because they love Caribbean culture. They like the cold drinks, the beaches, and the food, and they’ll continue to come.”

Also, there’s no sign for now that there’ll be a dramatic increase in American travel to Cuba in the near future. While the categories of travel to the country have expanded and US travellers no longer need to acquire a special license, organising a trip can be a hassle. You have to provide an itinerary to prove you are going for education, journalism, religion, or another of a dozen reasons. There are no regular commercial flights to Cuba, only charter flights from a few US cities.

And while the Obama administration has allowed the use of US debit and credit cards on the island, there is no infrastructure at the moment for their use. There are few ATMs on the island. Internet access — a dealbreaker for many Americans — is not widely available. And the quality of hotels and transportation has to improve greatly to attract Americans who value leisure and comfort.

“Changes will not happen overnight,” says Jacqueline Laguardia Martínez, a Cuban lecturer at the University of the West Indies. “There are many modifications that depend on the US Congress’s decisions.” And there is no chance the Republicans who currently control both Houses of Congress would agree to that. They are actually trying to do what they can legislatively to obstruct Obama’s changes, and a Republican president next year could actually roll back those changes. But politicians can be pressured to soften their attitude. Polls show support for improved relations with Cuba among the American electorate, and businesses are eager to set up shop on the island.

Laguardia Martínez suggests the way forward is collaboration between Cuba and other Caribbean destinations on “multi-destination tourism,” like cruises. “To cooperate is better than to compete,” she says. “There’s a lot that Cuba can learn from the last fifty years of Caribbean experience dealing with American tourism. On the other hand, Cuba can contribute to the multi-destination package by enriching the tourist experience with the attractiveness attached to its peculiar history, culture, and society.”

And all the tourism experts above agree the region should use the current period of uncertainty to examine and improve what they have to offer tourists. Larry Basham would like to see better customer service, and Emil Lee wishes Caribbean destinations would be more aggressive in marketing.

“Either Cuba’s going to have an impact or it won’t,” says Lee. “If you do nothing, and it does have an impact, it would be too late to react. And if Cuba doesn’t impact, then all we’ve done is increase our total numbers [of visitors], which is good for our economies anyway.”