CARIB TOURISM NEW TEST

A relaxed looking Barack Obama earlier this month detailed plans to move towards normalizing decades of thawed relations with hemispheric pariah, Cuba, irking many in the rival GOP Republican camp as well as the anti-Cuban, anti-Castro types in South Florida who had long opposed any improvement in ties with the Caribbean island.

But once the dust settled, the attention of leading players in the Caribbean tourism industry immediately turned to the possible impact of the island on the regional tourism and whether or not the sheer novelty of an open Cuba’s would devastate the regional product sun, sand and sea product the region has been offering for decades.

By the time Obama had finished outlining plans to the country after 18 months of astonishingly secret talks, academics from around the world had started to unveil a plethora of studies that had mostly predicted not so good news for countries which are members of the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).

The Miami Herald which has sometimes been criticized for its hawkish stance towards things Cuban, for example, quoted from a 2011study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) called “The Vacation is Over” noting the opening of Cuba to U.S. tourism would represent a seismic shift in the Caribbean’s tourism industry.”

But even as those with multi-million investments in the Caribbean watch with baited breath, experts are divided on what would be the real impact should two to three million Americans with their vast spending power and geographical nearness would have on Cuba and whether in fact an overcrowded island full of over enthusiastic Americans won’t chase non-U.S. visitors to other places such as Aruba and Jamaica.

Hemispheric expert Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald is one of those who think that Obama’s latest move on Cuba-US relations might still yet work in favor of the other competing countries.

“Cuba may be a blessing in disguise for Caribbean countries and Mexico. An overnight lifting of the travel embargo would have produced an avalanche of U.S. tourists to Cuba that would have crippled Cancun and other Caribbean tourism resorts. But since the flow of U.S. tourists to Cuba will grow gradually, they will have time to prepare themselves for the new reality,” he said.

He also suggests that operators will have little choice but to “re-invent themselves as something more than sun and beach destinations, for instance building up adventure tourism or medical tourism industries” and it would be fatal if they just sit around and take no action.

Contrast that with Barbadian Cabinet Minister Richard Sealy who is the current Chair of the CTO. Despite the new buzz about Cuba, Sealy says that “data collected by the CTO’s research department thus far indicate that the Caribbean is moving in the right direction as it relates to cruise visits, long-stay arrivals and tourism spend.” He also suggested that a reduction in a crippling travel ticket tax that Britain had imposed on passengers will help maintain and even grow the number of arrivals to non-Cuba destinations.

Quoting from yet another study, international writer Lorenzo Perez reports up to three million Americans could head to Cuba annually in the short to medium term. Travel costs would head downwards encouraging bulk travel but the downside is that Cuba’s infrastructure would not be that ready to take off an avalanche of tourism from anywhere all at once.

More from Around NYC