Region's tourism officials ponder impact of Obama's 'new beginning with Cuba'

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Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

*logoFollowing President Barack Obama's announcement last week of the easing of travel restrictions and remittances for Cuban-Americans, Caribbean tourism ministers weighed in on the larger question of whether the move preceded a lifting of the broader travel embargo, set in place 47 years ago, which has effectively banned most Americans from travel and trade with Cuba.

The ministers' comments preceded the Summit of the Americas, held in Trinidad from April 17 to 19. In his speech at the summit's opening ceremony, Obama vowed to seek a "new beginning with Cuba" but made clear that what was now needed was change from Cuba. His remarks were viewed as part of a series of recent signs of reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba.

"From a purely tourism point of view, we must remember that Cuba is a popular Caribbean destination and an active member of the Caribbean Tourism Organization," said Hugh Riley, the CTO's interim secretary general. "Any event that helps bring large numbers of new vacationers to the Caribbean and raises the profile of our brand will not only benefit individual destinations but also the entire region."

Jamaica viewed the easing of travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans "not as a threat but as an opportunity for co-marketing and regional cooperation," according to John Lynch, director of tourism.

Richard Sealy, tourism minister of Barbados, said that Obama's April 13 announcement "does not affect us directly, but it is a wakeup call to prepare us for what will eventually occur. We are fooling ourselves to think that it would not impact the U.S. visitor."

The minister described Cuba as "the No. 2 player in the Caribbean in terms of visitor numbers. We may lose some business here in Barbados because of curiosity on the part of Americans wanting to see Cuba." (In 2008, Cuba welcomed 2.3 million visitors, second only to the Dominican Republic's 3.9 million visitors.)

"Cuba is attractive to investors, and competition for investment capital is a concern. This is where Cuba will emerge as a bigger threat," Sealy said, adding that Barbados will continue "to separate ourselves from the rest of the region by continuing to advance our unique, non-mass-tourism product that offers a destination that is clean, safe and friendly."

Charles Clifford, minister of tourism, environment, investment and commerce of the Cayman Islands, said that "it is universally accepted that it is a case of not if, but when, U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba will end. We identified this issue in 2005 and set out to continue to focus on the North American market, using strategic and innovative programs while increasing marketing activities in other markets to mitigate the impact of the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Cuba."

As far as implications for the cruise industry, Clifford said that cruise lines have said that Cuba's ports infrastructure and systems need development. "As such, there will be a transition period for cruise lines which want to serve Cuba because of the infrastructure situation. Ultimately, when Cuba reopens and any new itineraries are launched, islands in close proximity to Cuba, such as the Cayman Islands, stand to benefit."

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