Caribbean tourism stakeholders say Cuba is region’s wakeup call

Cuba tourists

PHILIPSBURG, St Maarten, Friday July 3, 2015 – Relatively little effort has been spent on turning the most tourism dependent region in the world into the most tourism competent, according to a white paper recently issued by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) entitled, “Cuba: The Great Disruption for the Good of the Caribbean.”

The paper candidly stated that the country that many regard as the region’s least capitalistic is about to teach its neighbour governments, capitalists and free market adherents a lesson.

In light of the pending removal of travel barriers to the communist Caribbean country, the paper stressed that the anticipated increase of American visitors to Cuba should prompt the region’s public and private sector leaders to take positive steps to improve their global competitiveness or face negative economic and social consequences.

Emil Lee, CHTA president and St Maarten hotelier, pointed out that while US 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.”

Frank Comito, the association’s CEO, went further, predicting that the opening of travel to Cuba for US citizens “will be the biggest and most disruptive pebble dropped into the Caribbean pool in 50 years.”

Travel Weekly reports that 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 US 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.

Even without the decades-old embargo being lifted, Cuba’s visitor arrivals are the envy of most other Caribbean countries.

While the Dominican Republic was out front last year with 5.1 million stopover visitors, Cuba ran second with 3 million, with the bulk arriving from Canada, Europe and South America.

Cuba expects tourism to deliver nearly US$6 billion in future visitor spending, according to the CHTA, which surveyed tourism planners and government leaders across the region about how much of that will come at the expense of other islands.

“Those Caribbean countries whose focus has been on the US 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.

Meanwhile, Kurt Weinsheimer, vice president of marketing and business development for Sojern, a travel marketing service with more than 200 million traveller profiles, said that interest in Cuba is growing globally, not just in the US.

“Our data show that searches around the world increased by at least a third in the aftermath of the first White House announcement on December 17,” Weinsheimer said. “On December 18, searches from Canada were up 40 percent, while major European countries’ searches were up 20 percent to 30 percent day-on-day, and the trend continued into this year.”

Parag Vohr, general manager of Sojern’s hotel division, indicated that some destinations were already losing ground to Cuba.

“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 gains could come at the expense of other countries in the region and beyond.

“There is a surge of people who want to see destinations like Havana while it still sits in a time capsule,” he said. “There is a definite degree of interest from travellers 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.”

Acknowledging that it can no longer be “business as usual” in the Caribbean, 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 US government.

There have been similar calls in the past, both on the part of the CHTA and the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), CHTA’s counterpart in tourism’s public sector, which together partnered on the Caribbean Tourism Development Corporation several years ago to collaborate on regional strategies to develop and promote tourism.

But, according to Travel Weekly, 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.

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