Emil Lee: “Cuba will be an interesting and competitive factor”

POSTED: 12/22/14 12:13 AM

GREATBAY—St. Maarten’s tourism product, as well as that of the other Caribbean islands, may be negatively impacted by the new Cuban/American relationship, according to former director of the St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association and current president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, Emil Lee.

The CHTA president noted that after being closed off to US residents for tourism and business for the last fifty years, Cuba will now be “a competitive and interesting” factor. While pointing out that although Cuba was still opened to tourists from Europe and Canada while the embargo lasted, he highlighted the reality that America is the biggest tourism market for the Caribbean islands including St. Maarten. Lee noted that an agreement has not yet been arrived at or announced, allowing American tourists to visit, Cuba, but he opined that this will eventually be done.

“Because of the US embargo, which basically prevented Cuba from moving forward at the rapid pace of the rest of the world, the island is now like a time capsule, it’s an oddity and that in itself will draw a lot of persons to its shores initially simply because of the curiosity factor,” Lee explained. He added that Cuba’s proximity to Miami which means the cost of travel by either cruise or airplane is likely to be less than for visiting the other islands, also works in that destinations favor.

“It is also very important to add that the much cheaper cost of labor and of doing business in Cuba will make it more attractive which means it will be highly competitive. I am also inclined to believe that part of Cuba’s negotiations with the United States more than likely include efforts to stimulate the islands economy. To date the Caribbean has not done a great job at lobbying the US for investments which now put these islands at a disadvantage.”

Lee believes that the Caribbean islands have become somewhat complacent but that they now need to get “their house in order.” He has confidence in the local tourism product, but stressed that even if Cuba’s doors won’t open to American tourists overnight, there is still much that needs to be done locally to enable the island to remain competitive. As chief among these he sites transparency in the tourism office and having a proper trickledown effect of revenues generated. He also thinks the number of crimes on the island especially those perpetrated against visitors need to be tackled.

“We need to make the island a safe place to live, not just a safe place to visit, which means attention must be given to the economic situation of the people of the island.” Lee cautioned that there is a lot to be done to secure the islands place as a preferred destination among the American tourists even when they are presented with the option of Cuba and he said the work must start now.

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