The Cuba factor in the Caribbean equation

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What does Cuba mean to the destination and tourism market as it comes off a five-decade U.S. visitor embargo? What other destinations are at risk? Which tourists will go? What will drive its growth in travel and tourism?

Cuba was, for many years, the jewel of the Caribbean, the destination of choice for the well-heeled and privileged. That all changed after the Castro revolution, when the U.S. levied sanctions on the Caribbean's largest island and made it illegal for citizens to travel there.

As the draconian laws are finally lifted and U.S. citizens are again permitted to travel there, what will a suddenly visible and viable Cuba mean to other tropical destinations?

I think the hierarchy is about to change.

The goal of every destination brand is to be different and better than the competition. They all look to have some equity at their disposal, some smidgen of uniqueness that gives them a foot up in the battle for tourist dollars.

For the most part, this has been diluted into meaningless catchphrases like "It's Better in the Bahamas." At the end of the day, every tropical destination tries to sell its white-sand beaches (or pink if you are Bermuda), clear, tropical waters, trade-wind breezes and colorful, local inhabitants.

Some tried to be different by promoting cuisine or adventures like scuba diving or hang gliding. The silliness of such focus is not lost on potential visitors, since everyone knows you can scuba dive everywhere in the tropics. And the food? Well, you can eat everywhere, too.

Then there's the rise of the all-inclusive resorts, which imitate landlocked cruise ships with everything you need and want right at your door. Of course, "everything" can translate into more of the same. Conspicuously missing are the colorful locals who, except for staff members, are purposely locked out. What some travelers are drawn to as safe and predictable sun and fun, others see as sterilized ports that end up offering only cheap booze, overcrowded pools and no authentic experiences.

Ecotourism emerges as the opposite of the all-inclusive resort, an attempt at a real experience that was environmental, historical or anthropological. The idea -- and an important brand idea at that -- was to experience something that was food for the soul as well as an excuse for indulgence.

Among this clutter of destination redundancy, Cuba stands unique. It actually owns something that travelers covet. It may be short-lived, but for now it is the forbidden fruit. With decades of demand primed and fed by the embargo, Cuba is poised to set the Caribbean, maybe even the entire tropical destination market, on its ear.

But it might well be that an open Cuba will grow the entire travel market rather than just cannibalizing its tropical neighbors.

For example, I once thought Cuba would eat Jamaica's lunch when sanctions and embargoes were lifted. I am rethinking that a bit, because Jamaican visitors are tourists, not travelers. They are a frightened lot who populate the all-inclusive resorts but have learned to fear the unplanned and unprogrammed. Sure, they might venture out to the famous waterfalls or raft down a meandering river, but they avoid the local crowds of people in Kingston and prefer organized and guided excursions (even if it is to a tourist mall).

Somehow, I don't think this is the profile of the Cuba tourist. 

'Cuba is a place where the excitement of mingling with locals is at least as important as the white beaches, blue skies and local cuisine. Cuba is for the traveler. Cuba is not for the tourist. Its promise is the unscripted, not the rack brochure.'

To the U.S. traveler, Cuba seems caught in a time warp. In addition to our visions of beaches and bistros, we also indulge fantasies of hailing a cab that's a vintage 1950s Ford. Hemingway's Cuba still lives in our hearts, and we all envision ourselves strolling down the beach and encountering the Old Man of the Sea or hearing discussions of the great Joe DiMaggio. 

Cuba is not a destination filled with visions of fences (excepting Guantanamo) or walled communities. It is a place where the excitement of mingling with local inhabitants is at least as important as the white beaches, blue skies and local cuisine -- oh, and I forgot to mention, the world's best cigars.

Cuba is for the traveler. Cuba is not for the tourist. Its promise is the unscripted, not the rack brochure.

There is another reason I think Cuba will set the travel world on fire: a brand of totalitarianism called communism. I know that might sound strange, but hear me out.

As a brand strategist, I know the ins and outs of messaging and persuasion. As I see it, the problem that besets almost every destination and tourism brand is the convention and visitors bureau.

These political quagmires, which run most destination brands, have a habit of mucking things up. Their agenda is not to win and succeed so much as to satisfy every political faction. After all, it is quite common for touristy things to be taxed, and everyone who levies those taxes believes they should have a voice in the final message.

This process produces vanilla pudding. Each message sounds like everyone else in the category, because they are in fact exactly like everyone else in the category. Committees are the archenemy of branded messages, and every resort, destination, tropical island and port of call has one. The result is a terrible brand strategy, if there is any strategy at all.

But as a totalitarian communist country, Cuba is used to managing messages, along with just about everything else. There are no dissenting constituencies to contend with. All Cuba needs is the right strategy and the ability to execute it.

Finding the right strategy is key, because it will need permission to evolve. What will no doubt be a slam dunk in the beginning will quickly become challenged, because once the destination becomes popular, it is a difficult challenge to sell it as unique. Right from the get-go, the strategy needs to build on this progression with a singularity of purpose.

Apple Computer offers a fine example. Despite the fact that everyone owns an Apple device (many even save the boxes), the Apple brand has been able to maintain the conceit that its fans are special and think differently.

Cuba had its Fidel Castro, and Apple had its Steve Jobs. While the level of tyranny is, of course, not at all comparable, there is more to the power of personality than mere coincidence.

So who loses? I think Cuba will siphon off business from everywhere. Its limits will be measured in availability of accommodations rather than consumer demand. Cuba will win big by default.

The only question is whether it will be the biggest winner through brand planning and singularity of message. The country will have one chance to get it right. Here is one brand guy who hopes they do.

Because, hell yeah, I want to go!

Tom Dougherty is the CEO and president of branding company Stealing Share. Over a 25-year career, he has led efforts for such brands as Ikea, Tide and Lexus as well as for many destinations.

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