It should not come as a surprise that US President Barack Obama this week lifted travel restrictions limiting Cuban-Americans to one visit to Cuba every three years.
Nor should it come as a surprise if President Obama at some time, even within his first year of office, acts to lift US sanctions against the island nation that have been in place for more than 40 years.
In the short term, Mr. Obama’s actions might prove to be a boost for Cayman Airways as demand by Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba increases.
However, this short-term benefit is outweighed by the fact that Mr. Obama will likely also lift the restrictions banning most other Americans from travelling to Cuba legally.
Although the opening up of Cuba to American tourists would likely have significant effects on the Cayman Islands, not all of those effects would necessarily be bad.
For instance, the stale western Caribbean cruise routes – which are seeing a decline in passengers – could be revitalised by the addition of stops in Cuba. Of course, whether Cayman remains on the itinerary of some of the ships will likely depend on whether the proposed cruise berthing facility is built.
With investors ready to pour funding into Cuban tourism projects and a workforce of millions, it won’t take very long for berthing facilities to become a reality in two, three or even four ports in Cuba.
As for stay-over tourism, Cuba has a long way to go to approach the kind of tourism product Cayman has. Cuba does not have the level of restaurant or service quality that Cayman does, though these aspects could be corrected in relatively short order. However, Cuba also has some social issues that make it less attractive to families and high-end tourism, and those issues could take a decade or more to work through.
Regardless, everyone in the Cayman Islands tourism industry should begin preparing, if they haven’t already, for the inevitable and possibly imminent lifting of the US travel ban to Cuba.
Even if Cuba’s tourism market is significantly different than Cayman’s, our tourism product must step up if it is to meet the challenge of a new competitor that is actually even more conveniently located to the United States than we are.