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United States (US) Secretary of State John Kerry watches the raising of the American flag at the newly opened US embassy in Havana, Cuba. Kerry presided over the flag raising ceremony in Havana as the US and Cuba re-establish diplomatic relations after more than 54 years. - AP

Cuba: The Caribbean's wake-up call

For far too long, the Caribbean has taken tourism for granted, according to a white paper issued by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) entitled Cuba: The Great Disruption for the Good of the Caribbean. The paper states that the country that many regard as the least capitalistic in the region is about to teach its neighbour governments, capitalists and free market adherents a lesson.

The white paper stresses that through the years, the governments of the Caribbean have shown a preference for revenues from commodities and agriculture to revenues from tourism. Cuba has long recognised that the great advantages of tourism are that it not only brings much-needed foreign exchange, but also delivers broad-based employment, establishes linkages throughout the economy, and is sustainable over time.

The CHTA aims to raise awareness about both the challenges and the opportunities to the region with the pending removal of travel barriers to Cuba. The paper stresses that the anticipated increase of US 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.

Welcome change

CHTA president and St Maarten hotelier, Emil Lee, states that "we want to be clear that the CHTA welcomes the lifting of the US travel embargo and Cuba participating with the rest of the Caribbean as a tourism partner. This would eliminate a significant barrier to improving regional cooperation and integration". The paper also describes trade and investment opportunities, how Cuba can learn from the region, and how the region can learn from Cuba about improving destination and regional competitiveness.

Lee said: "Cuba should not be a point of fear for the region; rather, it should be a rallying point for opportunity. Failure to act will result in a diversion of Americans and travellers curious to experience Cuba before it changes, many who would otherwise go elsewhere in the Caribbean."

According to Lee, "Cuba is already well-established as a destination for many direct long-haul flights and shows great potential to be a regional air hub, much like San Juan. By example, we believe travel to the Caribbean could be stimulated significantly by adopting policies and practices which eliminate visa and travel barriers, reduce regional and US-based high air-travel-related taxes and fees, speed up the traveller's clearance and processing time, and support a more cooperative approach among industry stakeholders. Advancing these ease of travel and cost of travel strategies would drive more business to the region."

The island's success

"The region can't blame Cuba for its success," said CHTA CEO Frank Comito, adding: "We need to look at those factors which have contributed to its success - product diversity, infusing culture and history into the visitor experience, investments in education and training, competitive pricing, lower operating costs. We need policies and practices which drive business, and not drive away business."

The paper candidly states that "relatively little effort has been spent on turning the most tourism dependent region in the world into the most tourism competent. The coming Cuban disruption just might be the tonic that the countries need individually and collectively to build the kind of strategic approaches to tourism development that will yield sustainable results for its citizens."

The CHTA proposes that the US government, the region's governments, and public and private-sector tourism industry stakeholders work together to create a Caribbean basin tourism initiative which the CHTA recommended recently to the United States International Trade Commission. 


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