TripAdvisor reports tourist destination Cuba’s rapid rise

POSTED: 01/5/14 10:33 PM

Emil Lee: “We have to make clear that we offer a different product”

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – The slumbering tourist destination of Cuba is rapidly waking up. The traveler’s website TripAdvisor recently named its capital Havana as the most important rising tourist destination in the world, ahead of places like La Fortuna de Los Carlos in Costa Rica and Kathmandu in Nepal. How will this development affect St. Maarten’s tourism driven economy? “People only have limited vacation time and they have limited resources. Any competition for the tourism dollar is going to affect St. Maarten,” says Emil Lee, president of the St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association (SHTA).

TripAdvisor describes Havana as follows: Once a magnet for Americans who wanted a quick weekend getaway, Cuba’s capital city saw a drastic drop in post-War tourism thanks to a combination of strained foreign relations and economic woes. Recently, though, Havana has been experiencing a cultural renaissance, as the city shakes off the cobwebs and pours resources into resorts and hotels. Soak up some history while you soak up the tropical sun, strolling amid the colonial-era sights of Old Havana. Whether you prefer to hot-step it in a salsa club, tour a cigar factory or sip a mojito in one of Hemingway’s haunts, energy buzzes in and around Havana’s historic city center, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Press agency Reuters reported in October that record numbers of Americans travel to Cuba. In 2012, more than 98,000 American citizens traveled to Cuba, up from 73,500 in 2011. The numbers do not include the 350,000 Cuban Americans that made the trip because Havana considers them nationals and does not include them in its tourism statistics.

American citizens are barred from traveling to Cuba without government permission, Reuters reported. There is a half century-old trade embargo in place that can only be lifted by congress. But in spite of the ban, the rise in US travelers to Havana indicates that Obama’s administration has a lenient attitude and that it is inclined to allow people-to-people contacts that are expected to fuel political change in Cuba. The island is located just 90 miles from the coast of Florida.

SHTA-President Lee is not too worried about the rise of Havana as a tourist destination. “I believe that Cuba is comparable to the Dominican Republic. Both destinations cater to different customers. St. Maarten is more sophisticated and cosmopolitan.”

All the same, it does not mean that St. Maarten should become complacent, Lee ads. “We need to be clear about how we brand our destination and we have to show how we distinguish ourselves from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.”

The Spanish language is predominant in both destinations and they both have inexpensive labor at their disposal. “We will never be able to compete with those destinations in terms of price,” Lee points out.

The attraction of Cuba is obviously that the country has been caught in a time capsule. Time has stood still in the isolated communist country. Tourists get to drive around in 1957 Chevrolets for fun, and that makes the destination interesting for some tourists. “Imagine if you could bring back St. Maarten the way it was thirty years ago,” says Lee. “That would make us unique on a different level.”

What St. Maarten needs to do, he adds, is make clear that the island is offering a different product. “We are more of a Caribbean destination with European influence.”

How the emerging destination of Cuba will impact the tourism driven economy in St. Maarten is hard to define. In fact, Lee says, “there are a limited number of customers for the Caribbean and any competition will affect us. Any new product that comes on the market will be a challenge for St. Maarten. We operate in a limited market place and we have to realize that people will go to Cuba at least once, if only out of curiosity.”

The competition for tourism dollars is a global phenomenon, Lee continues. “China is also a competitor,” he says. “Any competition for tourism dollars is going to affect St. Maarten.”

Hammering on the type of product St. Maarten offers to tourists, Lee notes that the destination has to communicate the differences with other destinations. “Market them,” he concludes.

That could of course be a problem, given the fact that the tourism marketing budget is falling victim to the government’s financial restraints.

According to the Reuters-report, Cuba hosted 2.8 million tourists in 2012. Arrivals dipped 2 percent up to October.

Obama has authorized licenses for so-called purposeful travel to more than 250 Cuban travel agents and he has also allowed more airports to provide charter services to Cuba. The initiative started in 2011, making it possible for groups to visit Cuba for educational and cultural purposes. “Cuba has so much to offer in terms of culture, history and issues of mutual concern – healthcare, education and the environment – and students, professionals, people of faith are curious,” said Collin Laverty, head of travel provider Cuba Educational Travel.

Reuters reported that in the years after Fidel Castro grabbed power in 1959, the number of US-visitors to Cuba peaked under President Bill Clinton to 70,000 and dropped to an average of 30,000 during the last term of President George W. Bush.

Not everybody is happy with Obama’s program, as the Reuters-report makes clear. “This is not about promoting democracy and freedom in Cuba. This is nothing more than tourism … a source of millions of dollars in the hands of the Castro government that they use to oppress the Cuban people,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida told a congressional hearing soon after Obama instituted the policy.

Theodore Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institute that advocates engagement, said Obama should do more to open travel to Cuba. He said it was ironic that Cubans, due to reforms on the island, were now free to travel where they pleased while U.S. citizens were not.

“American travel to Cuba will remain a small fraction of its potential as long as President Obama avoids a further liberalization of travel,” he said. “If the Cuban government can open travel of its citizens, which it now has, why can’t we?”


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