Cuba. It's the one-ton gorilla on the beach, and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) confronted it head-on in a position paper released last week, titled "Cuba: The Great Disruption for the Good of the Caribbean."
Frank Comito, the group's CEO, predicted that the opening of travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens "will be the biggest and most disruptive pebble dropped into the Caribbean pool in 50 years."
The association expects that those islands and countries nearest Cuba will feel the greatest ripple effects and warns that they should start now to plan ways to mitigate the impact.
Consequences for other Caribbean destinations farther from Cuba might be more muted, "but in the end the total Caribbean travel landscape will be changed forever," the CHTA warned.
Cuba's popularity and emergence as a sought-after destination, now that its relations with the U.S. are warming, has the association on edge due to the potentially significant loss of visitors, investors and revenue that could divert to Cuba from other tourism-dependent island nations whose fragile budgets will be hard hit if they do not take action.
Acknowledging that the long-standing Caribbean malaise of "business as usual" will no longer work, the CHTA is calling for the creation of a Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative to help boost trade, travel and investment across the region with help from the U.S. government.
It is modeled on the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a U.S.-led program in the 1980s that sought to boost trade in the Caribbean and Central America.
There have been similar calls to action in the past, both on the part of the CHTA and the Caribbean Tourism Organization, CHTA's counterpart in tourism's public sector, which together partnered on the Caribbean Tourism Development Corp. several years ago to collaborate on regional strategies to develop and promote tourism.
Whatever the group's intentions, there still remains no cohesive regional marketing plan in place to drive tourism to the region in a strongly competitive marketplace where the Caribbean increasingly faces tough competition globally.
The CHTA has good reason for concern. While other islands have been slow to move from agricultural-based economies or have relied primarily on the sun-sand-sea formula to lure first-time and return visitors, Cuba had few other recourses but tourism after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of sugar subsidies.
"Travel to Cuba will be the biggest pebble dropped into the Caribbean pool in 50 years." — Frank Comito
With the loss of revenue from sugar, Cuba forged ahead, making the development of tourism a high priority of the government and investing at least $3 billion in the industry in the early years of the post-Soviet era.
Comito admitted that the Caribbean could use a good shaking up, and Cuba could be just the catalyst to do that.
Although it might be the new kid on the block, and even without the decades-old embargo being lifted, Cuba's visitor arrivals are the stuff of dreams for other Caribbean countries.
While the Dominican Republic led the pack in 2014 with 5.1 million stopover visitors, Cuba ran second with 3 million, with the bulk arriving from Canada, Europe and South America.
"Those Caribbean countries whose focus has been on the U.S. as their primary source market and who have not felt any competition from Cuba will be surprised at how sophisticated and effective the Cuban marketing machine has become," Comito said.
Cuba expects tourism to deliver nearly $6 billion in visitor spending in the not-too-distant future, according to the CHTA, which surveyed tourism planners and government leaders across the region about just how much of that will come at the expense of other islands.
Kurt Weinsheimer, vice president of marketing and business development for Sojern, a travel marketing service with more than 200 million traveler profiles, confirmed that interest in Cuba is growing globally, not just in the U.S.
"Our data show that searches around the world increased by at least a third in the aftermath of the first White House announcement on Dec. 17," Weinsheimer said. "On Dec. 18, searches from Canada were up 40%, while major European countries' searches were up 20% to 30% day-on-day, and the trend continued into this year."
The CHTA's essential conclusion that in the absence of independent growth of travel and tourism to the Caribbean basin, existing entities will lose some share to Cuba was supported by Parag Vohr, general manager of Sojern's hotel division, who said that some of that shift was already taking place.
"Without the embargo being lifted yet, we already saw Cuba jump on the top 20 Caribbean destinations' list by four places, from 19 to 15, since December, leaving Curacao, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada and the British Virgin Islands behind," he said.
Richard Black, Sojern's senior sales director for tourism, said that Cuba's win could come at the expense of other islands in the region.
Moreover, he said, "That may well extend beyond the Caribbean. There is a surge of people who want to see destinations like Havana while it still sits in a time capsule. There is a definite degree of interest from travelers who may not have been planning to go to the Caribbean at all, but it's also hard to say what is curiosity vs. true travel intent."
Throughout its paper, the CHTA urges a new era of cooperation between private and public sectors.
Emil Lee, the association's president, pointed out that while U.S. tour operators, airlines and cruise executives are eyeing the tourism potential of Cuba, "conflicted stakeholders throughout the wider Caribbean have legitimate concerns [about] whether there will be a level playing field and whether the rest of the region will grow tourism arrivals or lose tourism interests as visitors divert to Cuba."