Cuba-US travel begins, but with restrictions

US-Cuba-L

As tourist routes open Friday morning between the U.S. and Cuba, Cayman is braced for changes, although the meaning and breadth of adjustments remain to be seen. 

President of the Cayman Islands Tourist Association Ken Hydes thinks the opening will be slow, if steady, and the changes gradual. Cayman, he said, will not suffer greatly. 

“What I expect, really, is that we are a different destination and a different market,” he said, reiterating remarks last week in which he indicated that Havana would require considerable time and investment to upgrade its facilities to international standards. 

“It will be a curiosity,” he said on Thursday, noting that travelers to Cuba may finish their excursion with several days in top-class local accommodation, employing international-standard telecommunications, banking and transport facilities. 

A recent Cayman Islands meeting of international hoteliers, he said, agreed the Cuba opening, announced Dec. 17 by U.S. President Barack Obama, was unlikely to siphon significant tourist numbers immediately, and pointed to Thursday’s State Department announcement that U.S. travelers still had to qualify under at least one of a dozen categories before traveling to Cuba. 

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of State listed the 12 categories: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions. 

The document did not explain, however, how travelers could qualify for the designations or who would review the self-assignments. 

A senior U.S. Embassy official in Jamaica said questions still surrounded the meaning of the categories. 

“You once needed to apply for a license to travel [to Cuba] under the 12 categories,” he said. “These remain the same, but now, if you meet the conditions, you do not need a license.” 

Washington’s Office of Foreign Assets Control on Thursday said general tourism was still prohibited. 

While a “case-by-case” license was no longer necessary, the office nonetheless said official regulations continued “not to authorize travel for tourist activities, which is prohibited by statute,” and that authorized travel would still “contain certain restrictions appropriate to each category of activities.” 

Minister for Tourism Moses Kirkconnell agreed that changes would be gradual: “In terms of the impact this latest move will have on tourism arrivals in the Cayman Islands, the ministry and our tourism industry partners remain watchful of developments between the U.S. and Cuba, but we are not unduly concerned about losing core market share at this juncture.” 

“Additionally,” he said, “it is important to note that while trade and travel restrictions have been somewhat eased in various categories, the ban on unrestricted travel between the U.S. and Cuba for tourism purposes still remains in place.” 

Cayman Airways CEO Fabian Whorms said new U.S. regulations would “allow U.S. carriers eventually to start operating direct scheduled flights to and from Cuba, but the rules and/or guidelines to achieve that are yet to be defined.” 

He did not, however, anticipate any immediate decline in Cayman Airways passengers passing through Cayman en route to Havana. 

“We are not perturbed with what is happening right now. For the moment it’s not that much of a change for our passengers traveling between Cuba and the USA,” Mr. Whorms said, making clear that “about 100 percent of our [Cuba] traffic is non-U.S. passport holders.  

The previous U.S. restrictions did not affect those passengers and this easing “is not relevant to them either,” Mr. Whorms said. 

He was reluctant to disclose the number of passengers flying to Cuba from Owen Roberts International Airport, saying the figure was “commercially sensitive,” and he wanted “to preserve the airline’s market intelligence from potential competition.” 

However, a Department of Immigration response to a 2008 Freedom of Information request offered a sense of magnitude: Almost 70,000 in-transit passengers moved through the airport that year – 35,087 arrivals and 34,836 departures. 

US-Cuba

Miniature flags representing Cuba and the U.S. are displayed on the dash of an American classic car in Havana, Cuba. The Obama administration is putting a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba as of Friday, significantly loosening restrictions on American trade and investment. – PHOTO: AP
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  1. I find the attitudes expressed in this article rather disturbing and am guessing that neither the Minister nor Mr Hydes are aware of this news report published about a month ago –
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    Caribbean CEO Arnold Donald says Cuba represents a tremendous opportunity for cruising if the trade embargo is lifted.

    There’s a lot of pent-up demand to visit Cuba, he said during a conference call with analysts to discuss fourth-quarter and full-year earnings.

    He noted that an open Cuba would allow cruise lines to create very fuel-efficient itineraries since they would no longer have to sail around the 780-mile-long island on the way to other Caribbean destinations.

    There are 11 potential ports of call in Cuba, he said, which would give people another reason to take Caribbean cruises.
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    That third paragraph is particularly worrying because what he’s effectively saying is that they would very quickly introduce itineraries that did not include Grand Cayman.

    Another article indicated the clear interest of US hotel chains including Comfort Inn, Marriott and Hilton to invest in Cuba.

    There’s a lot of head in the sand logic in the quotes above. Cuba already has a US2billion a year tourist industry attracting 3million people, nearly a third of them from Canada – a country the Cayman Islands has singularly failed to make any impact on. I can say from first-hand experience that their tourist product makes most, if not all, of the hotels on Grand Cayman look very down market.

    Apart from quality of service, accommodation and value for money the Cubans have set the benchmark for environmental standards. Whereas on Seven-Mile-Beach development has been allowed almost right up to the water, at places like Varadero proper set back requirements have protected some of the best beaches in the world.

    The other thing Cuba has going for it is that they don’t need to draw on ex-pats to build new resorts or staff them – it can all be done using Cubans so all they need is the money and that’s coming.

    It’s also unrealistic to promote the two-centre concept when you can enjoy a one-week all inclusive hotel package in Varadero with flights from the UK for roughly what just a motel-style room would cost here. This is the real world, people don’t move from an inexpensive resort where everything is included to an expensive one where you have to pay for everything – they’ll just take a longer break at the cheaper option.

    As for CAL? With due respect, I don’t know where Mr Whorms has been hiding for the last 20 years but the transit of American businessmen and tourists to Cuba through Grand Cayman has been going on back to the days when the service was operated by Cuban Antonov twin turboprops. In fact the 2002 CAL business study for the Havana route factored in this backdoor service for US visitors. Based on figures released by the Cubans themselves I would say that on some flights well over 50 percent of CAL passengers have had US passports but of course thanks to arrangements at the airport they don’t get stamped. It’s not something to be shy about, in fact it’s probably one of the few CAL routes that runs at a profit.

    As for his comments on US carriers operating in Cuba, he clearly didn’t read previous postings on this so I better repeat them. American Airlines operates, and has operated for more than 20 years, regular scheduled flights from Miami into Cuba. JetBlue, Delta and United also started services in 2011. These are technically referred to as scheduled charters because you cannot book seats on them directly through the airline but the details are on the internet and they are run on same basis as scheduled services.

    It’s time for people in positions of responsibility here to wake up and start taking this seriously because if they don’t the Cayman Islands are going to end up as just another Caribbean backwater.

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  2. Mr. Williams

    A super summary but people tend to only read the beginning and the end. I like your summary of the thing and it is right on the mark..

    Here’s a smaller variation. Cayman better get its sh..t together or its coveted position as a superior destination, which is extremely expensive I might add, will drift away7 like sands thorough an hour glass and so will be the days of our lives.

    So leaders of our fair country, before its too late, do something unique and make a plan.

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  3. Mr King, that is beautifully put!

    I tend to be long-winded in the hope that someone might actually take notice. Is that stupid or what?

    In blunt terms the problem I see is that nobody in DoT, CITA or any other tourist-related organisation in the Cayman Islands has any real understanding of the way the industry works or how the market is currently playing.

    There is just a complete detachment from reality in the local tourism industry at all levels.

    It’s time to grow up and accept that the Cayman Islands is not a top destination with a unique product that can command unrealistic rates but just another player in an increasingly tough global holiday market.

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  4. Both David and Len hit the nail on the head. The one thing Cayman used to have is the reputation of safety which is now lost. Other than that there’s other islands with beautiful beaches some even nicer than Seven Mile Beach. Most have a lot more amenities and things to do and see than Cayman does and many also have much more lush tropical fauna. Luckily on the eastern side you can still find that get away from it all atmosphere. And in Camana Bay you can find that real high end touristy small town environment, which is rear in the Carribean, IronWood will be another addition to this if it ever gets off the ground.

    Not to down Cayman, it is beautiful and I love it, but that we’re better than the rest and they can’t compete with Cayman attitude really needs to stop or else Cayman will end up on the bottom of the list.

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  5. After a recent visit to Cayman, I can say first hand that our family (from the US) will be looking elsewhere in the carribean for future vacations. Cayman used to be my personal favorite destination over anywhere else in the world. Not any more. Cayman has become increasingly and unreasonably expensive. We paid 100.00 for four people to eat a hamburger w/fries for dinner. Granted, it was on the water front, but the service was nothing special…and neither was the meal. Cayman is no longer the safe place it used to be either. Crime is unbelievably high,and I am shocked at the things that are going on there…even more so by the unsightly 12 foot high fence around the cruise terminals now. Several years ago, it was completely safe to walk anywhere, any time in Cayman. Not now. On my recent visits I’ve noticed that police presence seems to be completely absent. I didn’t see even one officer patroling the streets during our stay, where we drove around to explore real estate for sale on the entire island. Lastly and most sadly, Cayman isn’t nearly as friendly as it used to be. I think the devastating hurricane 10 years ago changed the place in a most unfortunate way. It’s a totally different island now than the island I fell in love with and visited regularly. As for my family… we are anxiously waiting for Cuba to open to all US citizens as a vacation choice…and most especially as a cruise destination choice. I do think Cayman will have some stiff competition once this happens.

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  6. I think that the politicians of the Islands need to stop the political spin on all issues, and come to reality. Cuba tourism is really great threats to the Cayman Islands tourism in many aspects. The Government of the Cayman Islands and the tourism department should start making plans to make Cayman Islands a better tourist destination. Remember that Cuba is like a new gadget that people only hear about, but never seen before.

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  7. Cayman has a unique situation in its favor. One is that crime has not reached the height of Central America or like the other caribbean country that cruise ship go to.So crime is not really a concern in Cayman for cruise ships.
    What our real problem is ? Is the price of liquor,food,cigarettes and cigars . The cost of living on this island has been ridiculous. No minimum wages . Correct these items and Cayman will go back to the way it was. Happy islanders and happy tourists. No one is giving up liquor , cigarettes or cigars. They would rather give up food rent elect, or insurance etc. Lets be honest. Raising liquor prices has not stop crime. There has to be a balance.

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