Last updated: 12:11 PM ET, Wed July 01 2015

Caribbean Tourism Stakeholders Hope To Rise With Tide of Cuban Tourism

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | July 01, 2015

Caribbean Tourism Stakeholders Hope To Rise With Tide of Cuban Tourism

Photo by David Cogswell

The heightened interest in travel to Cuba among U.S. citizens following the Obama administration’s recent moves to restore diplomatic relations with the country has not gone unnoticed by Caribbean tourism stakeholders.

On the contrary, some eye the specter of competition with Cuba for U.S. travelers as not only likely, but also as an opportunity to win greater support for the entire Caribbean region.

That group includes the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), which last week submitted a position paper to the U.S. International Trade Commission calling for the creation of a Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative (CBTI) to “contemplate policy and technical support to the region.”

“The normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations can be the catalyst for advancing a new Caribbean tourism and economic development agenda,” said Frank Comito, CHTA’s chief executive.

However, “CHTA cautions the United States that Cuba’s development in tourism should not be to the detriment of the rest of the Caribbean,” Comito said. “Policies, practices and support emanating from the United States and within the region to stimulate the region’s economies must be broadly applied. 

“Overall tourism-related economic activity in the region must increase significantly,” said Comito, “rather than there being a shift from existing countries in the region to Cuba.”

Comito said the proposed CBTI is similar to the original Caribbean Basin Initiative of the 1980s and would incorporate partners including CHTA and the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), “engaged with the United States and other stakeholders in the development and delivery of an economically sound, safe and stable Caribbean.”  

CHTA’s position paper claims Caribbean governments have not supported tourism in accordance with its importance to the region.

“Many Caribbean governments appear to have grudgingly accepted the employment and foreign exchange benefits delivered by tourism economies but have not provided the attention and support to tourism (to) further reduce the high levels of unemployment and national debt which often plague their countries,” the report reads.  

“Relatively little effort has been spent on turning the most tourism dependent region in the world into the most tourism competent,” the report continues. “The coming Cuban disruption just might be the tonic the countries need individually and collectively to build the kind of strategic approaches to tourism development that will yield sustainable results for its citizens.”

Conversely, Cuban government officials have “learned from their success in attracting investments and tourists from non-U.S. markets that tourism presents the fastest opportunity to generate foreign revenue, stimulate employment and address budget shortfalls,” the report adds.

In fact, even without the U.S. travelers who are the staple source market for many other Caribbean destinations, Cuba, a CTO member, attracts more travelers than any other island tracked by the organization with the sole exception of the Dominican Republic.

In fact, some Caribbean tourism stakeholders aren’t especially concerned over the potential of widespread post-embargo travel to Cuba by U.S. consumers. “Whereas this whole idea of visiting Cuba is new for Americans, it is not new for any of us,” Richard Sealy, CTO’s chairman and Barbados’ tourism minister, said last month.

“We are not talking about a country that is new to tourism at all,” said Sealy. “Cuba’s largest source market, Canada, is a major market for all of us in the Caribbean. So we are already competing against Cuba. Cuba is already a player in tourism and the way we see it, if any of our members (are) able to attract visitors to the region (that) is good for the region.”

Nevertheless the CHTA position paper warns that Cuba is a potentially strong rival for warm-weather destinations close to U.S. shores.

“Cuba’s location will draw the attention of those travelers who have traditionally traveled spontaneously and impulsively to the Bahamas, a country which has relied on Florida for generating over 20 percent of its arrivals for some time,” CHTA’s position paper reads.

Also, “Countries such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Belize, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, and to a lesser extent destinations such as Cancun and Jamaica, have been beneficiaries of spontaneous and impulse vacation decisions, a growth area aided by online vacation offers and instant booking technology applications.”

Cuba would also wind up on cruise line itineraries, the report says, displacing other destinations. The island is also a strong market for sharing-economy suppliers like Airbnb, and increased flights to Cuba could also displace aircraft that currently fly to Caribbean destinations, the report warns.

“The true impact of businesses' losses or gains however will depend in large part on whether the size of the region’s tourism pie remains the same or whether the overall number of arrivals to the region increases so that those destinations which are prepared can get a larger slice of a bigger pie,” the position paper adds. 

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