David Cogswell | March 29, 2016 1:00 PM ET
The Year of Cuba
Now that Obama has finished his visit to Cuba and gone about as far as he can to normalize relations without lifting the embargo, it is as if an earthquake has ripped through both countries. The resulting tsunami is now rippling through all sectors of both societies. There is little doubt that this is the year of Cuba.
The travel industry is the principal beneficiary of the change at this initial stage of the normalization, but the business and cultural exchanges will rapidly spread throughout both societies. The ripples will be many and complex, with many cross currents that will produce a multitude of results that no one can now predict.
Both the second and third runners up for the Republican presidential nomination (at this point) this year are of Cuban ancestry. Perhaps that is a coincidence of no particular importance, but there is no doubt that Cuba will continue to be at the center of a whole complex of heated political issues facing Congress over the coming year and beyond. This is the year of Cuba if there ever was one. Cuba will figure into American life more than it has since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Many are joyous on both sides of the healing rift, but many others on both sides are also outraged or frightened by the changes. Senator Robert Menendez, representing the Cuban exile communities of New Jersey and Florida, says Obama’s moves mean the Castros have won. Some voices on the other side in Cuba say that the change means that America will take over Cuba.
No doubt there will be a great deal of fruit from the cross-fertilization of ideas and commerce as the countries open up to each other. But there will also inevitably be a great deal of cultural clashing as things develop, as the giant country and the tiny country learn how to deal with each other after more than a half century of isolation.
The most urgent immediate problem is the issue of capacity. Cuba simply does not have the infrastructure to handle the growing influx of Americans. Cuba’s ports are not ready for the invasion of giant cruise ships that is now gathering momentum. The island does not have hotel accommodations to accommodate even a small fraction of the potential demand from America at this point. Transportation is primitive in the country.
If you want to learn about travel infrastructure, go to Cuba where it is conspicuous in its absence.
The most profound long-term concern is the future development of Cuba.
Cubans, internationals who vacation in Cuba, and even Americans are bracing against what they see as the oncoming assault of American tourists that will be streaming into Cuba, as well as the entrance of American corporations. No one doubts that it will change the island for all three groups. What no one knows is how it will change.
It is an event with no precise historical equivalent, the sudden opening of a gigantic tourism market in a tiny country with nothing near the capacity to handle it. Many, not only in Cuba, but in the U.S. and in all the countries whose citizens like to vacation in Cuba, are afraid that Cuba may lose some of the qualities that endear it to the world now.
The only tourism event that compares in magnitude to the normalization of relations with Cuba is the mushrooming China outbound market. It is also an event with no precedent and with enormous consequences already unfolding, . profoundly changing the inbound tourism market in the U.S.
But the cleavage point of change for the China inbound market was 2007, when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the U.S. and China governments, the effects of which continue to mushroom year after year. The cleavage point for Cuba is now. We’re still at the beginning.
Obviously everyone engaging in the discussion about the opening of travel to Cuba from any side of the story agrees on one thing. What you will see if you travel to Cuba now will not exist a year from now. Much of what is there will of course still exist, but overall it will change radically. There is no way around that fact.
Everyone hopes for the best in regard to how the development proceeds, of course. We hope it helps to improve the lives of Cubans, helps to alleviate the island’s economic problems and shortages without violating the most charming aspects of its character and culture. No doubt there will be many both successes and failures in this regard.
Unanimity is rare, but pretty much everyone agrees on this: You will want to see Cuba as soon as you can.
In spite of enormous world-changing events taking place all over the world, a U.S. presidential election that is unprecedented in many ways, war in the Middle East, terrorism in Europe, extreme weather events and on and on and on, there will be no bigger story this year than Cuba. Certainly not for the travel industry, if not for the country at large.
This is the year of Cuba.
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