A new bill that would open unrestricted travel to Cuba to US citizens, if passed, would not have much of an impact on Cayman in the short term, and might actually help cruise tourism, according to industry officials.
The bill was introduced in Congress last week in the hopes that recent political changes in Washington will spill over to U.S. policy toward the island nation.
Considering 80 per cent of Cayman’s visitors come from the US, it is expected that this would have some impact on the tourism industry here.
President of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association Stephen Broadbelt believes that in the short term, the risk to Cayman’s tourism is low.
In regard to stay-over tourism, he said that Cuba will most likely attract a different type of traveller. ‘Most Americans do not see Cuba as somewhere you’d take the kids,’ he stated.
Mr. Broadbelt added, ‘Cayman is continuing to do well in the affluent family travel market and Cuba won’t impact that unless they upgrade their product offerings and infrastructure.
‘Cuba will do more damage to mass tourism destinations such as Cancun, [Dominican Republic] and Jamaica.’
However, Mr. Broadbelt believes Cayman will have to focus more on what happens long-term.
‘Long term- we need to keep our eye on the ball and will have to work harder to maintain or increase our market share in the region.’
Minister for Tourism Charles Clifford said efforts to mitigate against the impacts of Cuba opening up to tourism have been ongoing for the past few years.
‘Four years ago the incumbent government tasked the Department of Tourism with placing greater emphasis on our secondary markets of UK/Europe and Canada in a strategic move to increase the number of stay-over visitors from those regions and mitigate potential softening of US policies toward Cuba,’ he said.
‘Since then there have been concerted efforts to increase marketing activities to shore up interest in our destination. To date that investment has paid dividends with numbers of stay over visitors from both regions reaching their highest for over six years.’
For the period 2008 over 2007, Canada saw numbers increase by 6.10 per cent and UK/Europe by 7 per cent, the Minister noted.
The DoT has also been tasked with conducting research into the viability of South America as a secondary market and the results of this research will be available in a few months, the Minister noted.
‘This information will be shared with Cayman Airways who, too, are looking to expand into this market with connections through Panama’
During meetings with the cruise lines, as recently as a month ago, the Cayman Islands team was advised that Cuba’s opening to cruise visitation would positively impact the Cayman Islands, said the Minister.
‘The cruise lines advised that there are no plans to create a complete ‘Cuban itinerary’ akin to their ‘Alaskan itinerary’; rather the cruise lines envisioned itineraries with perhaps two ports in Cuba, a stop in Grand Cayman and one or two other western Caribbean ports.’
In regard to cruise tourism, Mr. Broadbelt believes that Cuba may actually help the Western Caribbean itineraries as a new destination on such itineraries, thus adding a new reason to cruise in the area.
Spokesperson for the Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism Emma Graham-Taylor said the cruise lines have been quietly working away in Cuba sussing out ports of call for when this eventually happens.
‘We probably wouldn’t see an impact this year,’ she said, explaining that the cruise lines book itineraries years in advance and the infrastructure in Cuba would not immediately be able to sustain a major change.
But things would certainly change in the long-run as infrastructure improved in Cuba, she said, which could be bad for Cayman.
‘It’s taking guesses,’ she said. ‘But in light of the fact that we don’t have a crystal ball we need to make sure that we’ve set the benchmark so high that it’s difficult for Cuba to compete,’ she said.
In the shorter term, she said that it if Cuba was on a Western Caribbean cruise itinerary it would be a good thing as long as Cayman was part of that itinerary also.
But she complained that Cayman’s head tax is the third highest in the Caribbean.
‘We’re giving the cruise lines more reasons to not come here than to come,’ she said.
What is crucial for Cayman over the next few years, she said, is for Cayman to build a relationship with the cruise lines where there is an ability to work with them and negotiate with them.
The ‘Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,’ which would overturn the 46-year-old US policy strictly limiting travel to the Caribbean island, will be subject to debate after being referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The bill, introduced by Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt and backed by eight other lawmakers, states that ‘the President may not regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly, travel to or from Cuba by United States citizens or legal residents.’
Although this type of bill has come to the US House and Senate often and does not get through, some believe the climate is right for it to get passed now, as there are more Democrats in Congress and Obama has expressed interest in revamping policy toward Cuba.
During his campaign for the presidency, Obama said the Cuba embargo had not helped bring democracy to the island, led by President 77-year-old Raul Castro.
But so far he has said only that he would end some sanctions on Cuban-Americans travelling to the island, and eliminate limits on their remittances to relatives in Cuba.