Airlines & Airports
Brian Major | April 04, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Will Cuba’s Rise Obscure Other Caribbean Destinations?
Word on the street is some Caribbean travel stakeholders are looking over their shoulders following President Obama’s recent measures to ease travel and commerce between the U.S. and Cuba, all highlighted by his recent visit, the first by a U.S. president since 1928.
Travel experts far and wide have long predicted travel to Cuba will surge once the U.S. embargo is finally lifted. In turn, some Caribbean officials have expressed concern that Cuba’s lively culture, time-capsule architecture and classic cars will so enrapture vacationers that other destinations in the ultra-competitive Caribbean will suffer significant visitor declines.
Still I find it hard to imagine travelers soon staging an en masse leap from potential to reality when it comes to Cuba travel.
The most significant barrier to mainstream leisure travel to Cuba remains the U.S. embargo, which despite the eased restrictions still officially bans travel to Cuba. Without Congressional legislation, which certainly won’t happen under President Obama’s administration, large-scale travel to Cuba is off the table for the forseeable future.
Moreover, experienced Cuba tour operators acknowledge the country’s tourism infrastructure is simply not equipped to accommodate an increased visitor influx. The island’s already inadequate hotel inventory is currently filled to capacity. Moreover a range of other issues, from travelers’ inability to use U.S. credit cards in the country to the nation’s sporadic internet connectivity, make mainstream leisure travel to Cuba a still-tenuous prospect.
Finally a recent survey from travel insurance provider Allianz Global Assistance found while almost half of Americans are interested in traveling to Cuba, 70 percent say they are unlikely to do so, listing “safety, lack of traveler information and trepidation over visiting a communist-governed country,” as among their concerns.
Allianz’ survey found that while 42 percent of Americans would like to visit Cuba, just 7 percent would actually be “very likely” to plan a trip to Cuba. Meanwhile 22 percent were “somewhat likely” to do so and the remaining 70 percent were “not at all likely.”
Other concerns identified in the survey include “a lack of information on Cuba’s travel experiences” (which 18 percent of respondents cited), “travel infrastructure” (12 percent), “internet/mobile connectivity” (7 percent) and “appropriate healthcare facilities” (6 percent).
Perhaps not surprisingly, some Caribbean tourism officials are unperturbed by the prospect of a Cuba fully open to U.S. visitors. Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’ newly named tourism minister, recently described himself as “mystified” by suggestions that travel to Jamaica will be affected by a full U.S. restoration of travel to Cuba.
“I can state quite clearly today that I personally do not see a threat,” said Bartlett in a Jamaica Information Service interview. “Our biggest market is the United States, where we currently get a 2 percent share,” he said. “Even if Cuba picks up a 5 percent share there is still a 93 percent share out there to be had. We have the tools to compete in with anybody, including Cuba.”
Perhaps a more significant concern for Caribbean tourism officials is not the prospect of more travelers embarking for Cuba in the near future, but more investors. Hotel companies and airlines are already rushing to fill the voids in both areas of Cuban travel infrastructure.
Indeed, the increased U.S. focus on Cuba means Caribbean countries can expect “strong competition for U.S. investment in a range of sectors, including oil, clean energy, tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, and service industries,” said Sir Ronald Sanders, an Antigua and Barbuda Ambassador and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University and Massey College, Toronto University.
In a column on Caribbean360.com, Sanders notes, “Cuba is a market of 11 million people. As its economy grows and the purchasing capacity of its population increases, its attractiveness as a place for investment will rise correspondingly.” He adds, “In large measure, the rest of the Caribbean will suffer from the diversion of U.S. resources – both private and public – into Cuba.”
While I’ve covered the Caribbean and Latin America for more than five years and sailed on dozens of international cruises in the years before that, I’ve never traveled to Cuba. Naturally several of my colleagues have, and I’m often asked if I’m looking forward to my first visit to the fabled island.
I honestly can’t say Cuba has ever been on my list of must-see destinations. For me, it’s another of the many sunny Caribbean destinations I’m always happy to experience, filled with fascinating culture, cuisine, music, art and architecture.
However I’m not eager to walk around Cuba with bundles of cash in my pocket, something I wouldn’t even do in a U.S. city. I’ve grown accustomed to roughing it when necessary, but I’m not exactly anxious to endure a possibly sub-standard hotel. Furthermore I like to visit the beach when I’m in the Caribbean, and beach access is currently anything but a sure bet when it comes to Cuba travel.
Cuba has an unmistakable air of romance and mystery, one that in time will likely draw millions of American travelers, including myself. Still I have yet to visit to other exotic Caribbean destinations - places like Bonaire, Guadeloupe and Suriname, to name a few. Cuba is somewhere on that list, just not necessarily at the top.
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