Is Cuba's potential tourism growth a threat to the rest of the Caribbean?
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
You might think other Caribbean tourism destinations would be ready to
flip their sandals as Cuba's tourism numbers continue to climb.
International visitors to Cuba last year rose by 13.9 percent to a
record 4 million, second only to the Dominican Republic (5.96 million),
while visitors to the Caribbean region as a whole in 2016 increased just
2.4 percent. Cuban tourism officials are expecting another record year
But some Caribbean leaders say they view the Cuban tourism juggernaut
not so much as competition as a way to raise the Caribbean's tourism
profile as a whole.
"Cuba opening up is a fantastic thing for the Caribbean," said St. Lucia
Prime Minister Allen M. Chastanet. "It only strengthens the brand of the
Caribbean. It's more important for all of us to be strong partners. The
more Jamaica grows, the more potential clients there are for St. Lucia.
It's the same with Cuba.
"Cuba is huge into Latin America, Europe and Canada and now even the
United States of America," said Chastanet. "There are a lot of people
who haven't come to the Caribbean and now maybe coming to Cuba will give
them the appetite to come to the rest of the Caribbean islands."
A new International Monetary Fund study on the potential impact on the
rest of the Caribbean if tourism from the United States to Cuba
eventually opens up concludes that one destination's gain isn't
necessarily another's loss.
Currently the United States allows U.S. travelers who fall into 12
categories, such as those making family visits to the island, on
people-to-people tours or on religious or humanitarian missions, to
visit Cuba. But U.S. regulations still don't allow American travelers to
make conventional tourism trips where they just lounge on the beach.
If those travel restrictions are lifted, the IMF paper says it could
result in 3 million to 5.6 million U.S. arrivals in Cuba — with most of
the boost coming from new tourists to the Caribbean. Last year, visits
by Cuban Americans and other U.S. travelers to Cuba totaled 614,433, a
34 percent increase.
At this point, there aren't any indications that U.S. travel policy to
the island will become less restrictive any time soon.
Former President Barack Obama lifted some travel restrictions with Cuba
and allowed the first regularly scheduled commercial flights between the
United States and Cuba and the first cruises in more than half a century
to go forward under his rapprochement policy, but it's unclear what U.S.
policy toward Cuba might be under President Donald Trump.
Trump, who has been critical of Cuba's human rights record and political
system, has said Cuba didn't offer any concessions to the U.S. and he
wants a better deal for this country in its relationship with the
island. The president has ordered a review of all of Obama's executive
orders on Cuba, and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said he expects
changes in U.S.-Cuba policy.
If the United States does at some point allow tourist travel to Cuba,
"the apprehension of the Caribbean tourism industry" is "likely
unwarranted," the IMF concluded. "The history of tourism in the region
has shown that it is possible for all destinations to grow despite large
changes in market shares."
In some ways the U.S. restriction on tourism to Cuba may have hurt the
Miami market, the IMF said. In the interim, Cuba has developed
bargain-priced beach resorts that attract large numbers of Canadians.
"One could argue that the U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba have in some
ways punished the Miami tourism industry by making Cuba artificially
cheap for Canadian tourists [who] would have otherwise vacationed in
Miami," said the report. "Hence, a reversal in U.S. policy towards Cuba
could potentially be a windfall to Miami." As more Americans visit Cuba,
the IMF said, prices there would be expected to rise.
Over the past 20 years, with the exception of the Bahamas, tourist
arrivals throughout the Caribbean have grown, despite rapid expansion in
destinations such as Cancun, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, said the
"I don't see Cuba as a threat and I don't believe the region as a whole
sees Cuba as a threat," said Grenada Prime Minister Keith Mitchell.
"It's true Cuba has been growing phenomenally in the last year or so.
But what has happened in Grenada is that we also have been growing."
Last year, Grenada — known as the Spice Island because of its exports of
nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and other spices — welcomed 144, 333 tourists,
a 2.6 percent increase, and in January, tourists arrivals were up 2.7
percent over January 2016, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
"Cuba being the giant that it's going to be now can help us if we
integrate our efforts in the region much more than we have done at this
point," said Mitchell. The Caribbean, he said, needs to work together to
improve transportation links to the region and to join forces in marketing.
"I think it's more important than ever that we have a Caribbean brand
that we're out promoting," said Chastanet. "The fact is that the
Caribbean is only 1.5 percent of the global tourism market."
For years, Caribbean countries have been talking about jointly marketing
the region, but egos, competitive instincts and rivalries have marred
the effort and little has come of it.
"Fundamentally it's an old problem. We must stop thinking of our
countries individually. We must think of the Caribbean as a whole," said
In 2015, the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association proposed creating a
Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative — a collaborative approach to tourism
development in the region. "The biggest and most disruptive pebble to be
dropped into the Caribbean pool in 50 years will arrive with the opening
of travel to Cuba for United States citizens," a CHTA position paper said.
"The discussion has gone on for decades," said Matt Cooper, chief
marketing officer for the CHTA, "but meanwhile the Caribbean has been
losing market share to other warm-weather destinations."
However, he said, the timing may finally be right for the Caribbean to
come together to collaborate on boosting tourism for the entire region.
The idea "built momentum" at the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) heads of
state meeting in Guyana in February, he said, and there is also
beginning to be "vocal support" at the prime minister level.
"There's a lifetime worth of travel experiences in the Caribbean," said
Cooper. "There is a necessity to get outside ourselves. The voice of a
collective will benefit everyone in the collective."
Collaboration might include joint marketing campaigns, promoting
Caribbean culture, selling made-in-the-Caribbean products, and personnel
and destination development, he said.
Currently a number of Caribbean destinations are eager to develop the
Asian market. "Cuba now has the only direct flight out of Beijing
landing in the Caribbean and that is interesting to other Caribbean
destinations," said Cooper.
The next step after buy-in by various Caribbean nations would be to come
up with a funding mechanism for Brand Caribbean, said Cooper, and that
could take a year or two. But in the meantime, the nations of the
Caribbean could come up with an interim funding model and start looking
at the markets they jointly want to develop, he said.
"From our perspective, we want to engage with Cuba," said Cooper. "If
they grow, we grow."
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Source: Growth in the Cuban market could help the Caribbean as a whole |
Miami Herald -