Cayman warily watches Cuba

Cayman Airways is watching the situation between Cuba and the US to see what effect it might have on the airline market to and from our nearest northern neighbour.


The impact of loosened travel restrictions between the US and Cuba remains to be seen in Cayman. Photo: AP

US President Barack Obama on Monday lifted restrictions that limited those with immediate family in Cuba to one visit every three years.

Cayman Airways runs seven scheduled flights a week between Grand Cayman and Havana, Cuba.

Now that Cuban-Americans have the ability to fly to Cuba whenever they want, demand for flights could go up.

Cayman Airways Manager Corporate Communications Olivia Scott-Ramirez said the airline has not discussed how the development would affect the national flag carrier.

‘At this time we’re watching the situation,’ she said.

‘If it becomes an influx then we’ll have to manage it, but right now it’s pretty much the same.’

CAL’s VP Commercial Paul Mooney said the company will also monitor market trends.

‘It’s probably a bit premature to make an official comment as we’re still digesting the news and seeing what effect it might have on the market,’ he said.

If Cayman Airways wants to put on any additional flights between Grand Cayman and Havana it would have to re-negotiate its air service agreement with Cuba and enter new negotiations with the US and UK if any of the flights involved Miami.

‘We’re currently entitled to seven [flights a week] so if we want to increase scheduled flights, we have to re-enter negotiations with the Cuban authorities,’ he said.

Mr. Mooney explained that in 2004 there were three weekly scheduled flights under the air services agreement and since then CAL was granted an additional four weekly charter flights.

The March discussions allowed the conversion of the four charter flights to scheduled flights, so there has not been an increase in capacity.

Also, CAL was granted the rights for additional charter flights into other cities/gateways in Cuba with the possibility of seeking confirmed scheduled operations if the market data proves to be positive.

‘It provides an option when considering development of future routes,’ said Mr. Mooney.

Executive Director of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association Trina Christian said that if Cayman Airways were to do well out of its Havana routes, it would help Cayman’s tourism.

‘By them making money on those flights that are not necessarily serving tourism, they can then put money into other key routes,’ she said.

Key markets for tourism, she said, such as Washington DC, may take a couple of years to build, but it opens up a new important market for tourism.

Although Obama did not lift travel and trade sanctions for Americans without family ties in Cuba, the move was seen by many as a first step in normalising relations between America and Cuba

Ms Christian noted that it would take some time for cruise tourism to get established in Cuba.

A recent Seatrader Insider report stated that cruise lines have estimated that once restrictions are lifted, it will still take six to 12 months to begin cruise calls for US cruise lines. While as many as 11 ports around the island of Cuba may be able to take vessels using tender operations, more time would be needed to build adequate pier facilities, provided the Cuban government authorises such infrastructure.

Mrs. Christian noted the view that the opening up of Cuba to mainstream cruise tourism may hold opportunities for the Cayman Islands because destinations in Cuba could help to freshen up a mature western Caribbean cruise itinerary.

The Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism’s Emma Graham-Taylor has said in the past the cruise lines have been quietly working away in Cuba, sussing out ports of call for when Cuba opens up.

‘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, which could be bad for Cayman.

‘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.

Mrs. Christian said she believes it would also take some time for stayover tourism in Cuba to take off with Americans. ‘People are more likely to take a cruise there first to test the waters,’ she said. ‘Of course you’d have more adventurous people checking it out right away.’

President of the CITA Steve Broadbelt has said in the past 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. ‘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.’

But he said for the long term Cayman needs to keep its eye on the ball and will have to work harder to maintain or increase its market share in the region.