Could impact Cayman’s tourism industry
U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and an easing in economic and travel restrictions on Cuba in an historic decision that could have far-reaching implications for the Cayman Islands’ tourism industry.
“Isolation has not worked,” Obama said in remarks from the White House, declaring an end to America’s “outdated approach” to the communist island in a shift aimed at ending a half-century of Cold War enmity.
As part of resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital of Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the governments. The U.S. is also easing travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities.
Tourist travel remains banned for now, but officials in the Cayman Islands acknowledged that Wednesday’s announcement increased the likelihood of Cuba opening up to U.S. tourists in the future.
The prospect of a large competitor jurisdiction emerging on the doorstep of the United States has been troubling tourism industry chiefs for more than a decade.
Ken Hydes, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said the relaxation of restrictions announced Wednesday could have implications for transit travel through Cayman.
He said further steps toward opening up Cuba to American tourists would represent a more fundamental change in the landscape for Caribbean tourism.
“It is a developing situation and one that we in Cayman will need to monitor closely. Local stakeholders will need to discuss how we position ourselves, in light of this, to maximize the opportunities that arise and mitigate the risk.”
He said Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. and the combination of Caribbean beaches, history and culture would likely make it an attractive destination to American tourists. He expects the cruise industry to move quickly to establish a presence in Cuba if the tourism ban is lifted. But he believes Cayman is well-positioned to retain its position in the market and could even benefit from “dual destination” travel opportunities.
Licensed American travelers to Cuba will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined. This means the long-standing ban on importing Cuban cigars is over, although there are still limits.
The U.S. is also increasing the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans from $500 to $2,000 every three months. Early in his presidency, Obama allowed unlimited family visits by Cuban-Americans and removed a $1,200 annual cap on remittances. Kerry is also launching a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror.
As Obama made the historic announcement, Cuban President Raul Castro addressed his own nation from Havana. He said that while profound differences remain between the two nations in such areas as human rights and foreign policy, they must learn to live with those differences “in a civilized manner.”
Obama’s action marked an abrupt use of U.S. executive authority. However, he cannot unilaterally end the long-standing U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, which was passed by Congress and would require action from lawmakers to overturn.
Wednesday’s announcements followed more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Cuba, including clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican and personal involvement from Pope Francis. The re-establishment of diplomatic ties was accompanied by Cuba’s release of American Alan Gross and the swap of a U.S. spy held in Cuba for three Cubans jailed in Florida.
Obama said Gross’s five-year imprisonment had been a major obstacle in normalizing relations. Gross arrived at an American military base just outside Washington Wednesday morning, accompanied by his wife and a handful of U.S. lawmakers. He went immediately into a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry.
Obama said he continued to have serious concerns about Cuba’s human rights record but did not believe the current American policy toward the island was advancing efforts to change the government’s behavior.
“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” he said.
There remains a divide on Capitol Hill over U.S. policy toward Cuba. While some lawmakers say the embargo is outdated, others say it’s necessary as long as Cuba refuses to reform its political system and improve its human rights record.
© 2014, Associated Press
Cayman Compass reporter James Whittaker contributed to this article.