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    Cuban thaw poses tourism threat to Caribbean neighbours

    Cuban thaw poses tourism threat to Caribbean neighbours
    Steve Johnson

    The sight of the Stars and Stripes being hoisted over the newly opened
    US embassy in Cuba last week, was one of the most visible signs yet of
    the diplomatic rapprochement between the long-term foes.
    If President Barack Obama gets his way, the US Congress will soon go
    further still and lift its 55-year-old trade embargo on the island.
    Such a move would be a major boon to the Cuban economy, not least by
    unleashing a torrent of big-spending American tourists on the island,
    which has largely been starved of such arrivals for more than half a
    This, however, could prove disastrous for some of the small islands
    elsewhere in the Caribbean which are heavily dependent on tourism. They
    could see much of the US tourism trade they have come to reply on
    decamping to the large, and quite possibly cheaper, new competitor in
    their midst.
    “Although the embargo and travel restrictions remain in place, an
    eventual lifting of sanctions would be a watershed event for the
    region,” says Claudia Calich, emerging markets debt manager at M&G
    “Countries that have the majority of tourists coming from the US are the
    ones that will stand to lose the most as these tourists head to Cuba
    instead. That could be disastrous for some.”
    An IMF working paper published in 2008 said a hypothetical opening up of
    Cuba to US tourists would represent a “seismic shift” in the Caribbean’s
    tourism industry.
    “An industry-wide shock such as this occurs once in 100 years.
    Neighbouring destinations would lose the implicit protection the current
    restriction affords them, and Cuba would gain market share,” said the paper.
    It warned that some countries’ over-reliance on US tourists left them
    “vulnerable” to such a “supply shock” and potentially facing long-term
    The IMF paper’s central forecast was that an embargo-free Cuba would
    attract 3m US tourists a year, making it the largest destination in the
    region for Americans.
    To be fair, not all of these tourists will be siphoned off from its
    neighbours. Firstly, the IMF estimated that the opening up of Cuba would
    increase overall arrivals in the Caribbean by somewhere in the region of
    2-11 per cent.
    Secondly, Cuba would face some short-term supply constraints as it
    builds its tourism infrastructure to cope with an influx.
    The IMF’s 2008 assessment (which has not been updated since) suggested
    Cuba had “substantial” excess capacity, with enough hotel rooms to cope
    with a doubling of tourists.
    However, 3m extra tourists would have implied a more than threefold
    increase from the 1.4m it was attracting at the time, implying that some
    of its Canadian and European visitors would be displaced, quite possibly
    to other Caribbean islands.
    The numbers have changed somewhat since then the IMF’s assessment, though.

    Cuba has seen its tourist arrivals more than double to 3m a year, but
    its capacity has also risen. London & Regional, which announced plans
    for a $500m luxury Cuban resort in June, is just the latest to eye-up
    the country’s potential.
    The IMF’s 2008 figures, which take into account its forecast of the
    displacement of non-US tourists from Cuba as Americans arrive, may still
    be instructive however. And they are not pretty reading.
    It predicted falls in visitor numbers of 35.5 per cent for the US Virgin
    Islands, 31.1 per cent for the Bahamas, 29.9 per cent for the Cayman
    Islands and 29.7 per cent for Aruba.
    Declines of 18 per cent or more were also foreseen for Anguilla, Turks
    and Caicos, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, Belize, Jamaica, St
    Kitts, Panama, St Maarten, Costa Rica and the Mexican resort of Cancún.
    Perhaps unexpectedly, there were also a handful of winners, with the
    likes of Martinique and Guadeloupe seen as attracting more
    French-speaking tourists displaced from Cuba than they lose in American
    For some of the losers, the impact could be painful, however. The small
    island of Aruba, located 29km from the coast of Venezuela, generates
    88.4 per cent of its gross domestic product from tourism, the highest
    figure in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, a
    trade body (see the first chart).
    A number of other Caribbean states, including the British Virgin
    Islands, Anguilla and the Bahamas are also in the top ten most
    tourism-dependent countries in the world, with more than 40 per cent of
    the GDP being generated by the sector.
    Several Caribbean states already have significant debt burdens and
    relatively lowly credit ratings, with the likes of the Bahamas, Barbados
    and Trinidad & Tobago on negative watch from at least one rating agency
    (see chart below).
    Ms Calich says she remains comfortable holding sovereign debt from the
    Dominican Republic, a country with 6m tourist arrivals a year and
    another country that the IMF saw as a small net gainer from the opening
    up of Cuba.
    But she says the analysis “has reinforced my credit concerns over
    smaller islands such as Aruba and the Bahamas”, where credit trends and
    ratings are “skewed to the downside”.

    “Typically the smaller economies have less potential to diversify. For
    every Bermuda (insurance) or Cayman Islands (financial services), there
    are other countries that are struggling to diversify,” she adds.
    “As debt levels creep up there are also other likely losers from the
    Cuban opening.”
    David Scowsill, chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council,
    is more upbeat, however.
    His assessment is that the Cuban industry is essentially operating at
    capacity, with visitor numbers rising 5 per cent last year (when the
    industry accounted for 10.4 per cent of GDP) and a further 14.3 per cent
    so far this year.
    Moreover, it will take time for the country to build the hotels and
    other infrastructure it will need to accommodate more tourists, although
    it could probably host more cruise ships, which are not reliant on hotel
    This means, for the time being at least, a surge in arrivals from the US
    would essentially displace non-Americans, meaning they were up for grabs
    by neighbouring islands.
    “I don’t see any negative impact, certainly for the next two to three
    years,” says Mr Scowsill. (He makes the same assessment of Haiti’s plans
    to substantially expand its tourist infrastructure, which could
    potentially damage the Dominican Republic, given that the country’s
    share a land border and the Dominicans attract 15 times as many tourists
    as Haiti).
    Overall, Mr Scowsill notes that tourism to the Caribbean in general
    continues to rise, meaning there is scope for more winners than losers,
    whatever the US Congress decides.

    Source: Cuban thaw poses tourism threat to Caribbean neighbours –