Caribbean Tourism: Cuban Normalization Not seen as a Major Problem


The rather probable lift of the United States embargo on Cuba is good news for United States travelers, but threatening news for Caribbean tourism destinations like the BVI who record a high number of visitors from the US.

The normalization  topic surfaced in December following discussions between Cuban President Raul Castro and United States President, Barrack Obama. International media announced that during the official announcements the Cuban President encouraged President Obama to discontinue the trade embargo. President Castro was quoted as stating that the 50-year embargo “caused enormous human and economic damage”.

Although the two leaders agreed to some measures, it was stated that the lifting of the embargo was within the domain of the US Congress, and it was announced that some Republicans were not in favour.

However, the fact that talks have begun between the two countries is enough to create worry among Caribbean nations and tourism entities that always feared the day the US and Cuba make amends. The notion has always been that an open Cuba would pose significant threat to the region’s already competitive tourism sector.

On the other hand, observers offer that with Venezuela on the verge of bankruptcy, which would have serious implications for a number of English-speaking Caribbean countries, the focus should be on that aspect rather than on tourism competition. In fact, if the Cuban situation is left unchanged, how are the neighbouring islands going to cope with hundreds of thousands of Cuban migrants? Russia, the only remaining big ally of Cuba is going through a serious crisis compounded by the dramatic drop in price of gas. And ultimately, competition is healthy for a Caribbean tourism industry with inflated prices and a product not always corresponding to the advertised high standards.

For years Seventh District Representative, Deputy Premier and Minister for Natural Resources and Labour, Dr. the Hon. Kedrick Pickering has been urging the Territory to be prepared for the normalization of the Cuba-USA relations and it appears his predictions might become reality.

In 2012, Hon. Pickering said “we better pray hard that Cuba does not open soon, and we must be able to improve what we are offering… it may come a time soon when we don’t have jobs because the Little Dixes of this world and the Biras Creeks of this world may very well have to close down. We need to keep this at the back of our minds because it is a very real threat.”

The Natural Resources Minister at that time predicted that if President Obama won a second term in office Cuba was going to open up, and as such he urged residents to avoid being complacent.

He also asked everyone to work to improve the tourism product and make the Territory competitive, should such a day arise: “I think we can work together to make the VI one of the best and unique places in the Caribbean,” Hon. Pickering said.

A resident who called the NDP Radio Program on 5 January recalled Hon. Pickering’s announcement about a possible Cuba opening and admonished Government to continue to work towards making the Territory competitive.

The caller said: “I was telling someone the other day that Dr. Pickering always said that if Cuba opens, the Caribbean has to watch out, and his words never fall to the ground. Now that Cuba decided to open their doors wider, I listened to the news the other day American Airlines already was having meetings to start to see if they could get their flights into Cuba; so we definitely have to step up our game. We have to step up our game or else we going to be way behind tremendously. The cruise-ship dock is a big step and the airport would be another bigger step.”

The neighbouring United States Virgin Islands are aware of the possible tourism threat an opened Cuba might bring. In a 21 December, 2014 Daily News article on the subject, V.I. Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty was quoted saying that such news would mean positive relations between the two countries, but would bring with it some challenges as well. She stated that the threat of Cuba opening to US travel has been looming for a while, but she stated that the USVI remains focused on short and long term strategies to keep itself a top travel destination.

The Barbados Nation newspaper ran an article on Christmas Day about the issue and stated that the opening of Cuba should not be viewed as a threat, but rather an opportunity for collaboration. The article quoted Donna Forde, charge’ d’affaires of Barbados’ embassy in Havana  who announced that there is no need to fear as yet, as the infrastructure and tourism offerings of Cuba is not on par with many top Caribbean destinations.

Forde reportedly said: “What is considered a five-star hotel in Cuba could never pass muster in many other places…Our food is very good and the Cubans are moving to raise the standards of their cuisine…But they have a long way to reach the level of cuisine and the culinary excellence that we see coming out of the food festivals in Barbados. Clearly, the culinary aspects of their tourism can be improved. There are opportunities for collaboration and what occurred on Wednesday is good news for the Cubans and it can be good news for Barbados if we play it properly.”

Puerto Rico’s Governor, Alejandro Javier García Padilla was quoted in a  article that was published on 23 December, 2014 sharing a similar view to that of Forde. He allegedly said: “Cuba doesn’t have attractions that Puerto Rico doesn’t already have…Of course, there will come a point when Cuba’s profile as a tourism competitor will certainly rise, but first it must develop its infrastructure to a level needed to compete successfully; and that it currently doesn’t have. As far as we are concerned, we will keep forging ahead and investing to remain the Caribbean’s tourism capital.”