TODAY Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe thinks that the US’s lifting of the embargo on Cuba provides an “excellent” opportunity for the Bahamas to “focus on improving the quality of our tourism produce”.
Seems that Mr Wilchcombe is 41 years too late. For years, Bahamian leaders in tourism have expressed the fear of what would happen should Cuba get back into the tourism business. For years they have talked of improving the industry against that day.
Despite the US’s 1961 embargo, Cuba has always been a lure for US tourists, who have found ways to get around the ban and explore what was left of an island, once noted for its scintillating night life and fascinating history.
We distinctly recall the jubilation in Nassau when in 1961 the United States proclaimed its trade embargo on Cuba after the overthrow of the Baptista government and Castro’s nationalisation of US assets in that island nation. Overnight, the dazzling night life of Cuba was gone, and the click of the dice at the gambling tables was silenced - Cuba was removed from the Caribbean tourism scene and overnight an opportunity was opened for the Bahamas.
Then, unlike now, the Bahamas had the good fortune of having the late Sir Stafford Sands at the helm of its tourist industry. A man of tremendous vision, he was already trying to expand the industry. By 1954, the Hotels Encouragement Act had been amended to encourage the construction of hotels by offering various concessions.
Sir Stafford opened tourism offices in Europe and North America and from an industry of 32,000 tourists in 1949 by the time the PLP took over in 1967 the country had enjoyed substantial growth with the building of new hotels and tourists figures reaching the million mark. The Bahamas was well on its way to securing the industry.
Another fall-out from Cuba to the benefit of the Bahamas was the day in 1959 when the Bacardi family, its rum company and its staff were expelled from the island. All the Bacardi estates and businesses were confiscated. The nearest neighbour was the Bahamas, and it is here that the Cuban family established itself, re-established its business, and was absorbed into our community.
Today, although some members of the family are still here, its head office is now in Bermuda with a distillery no longer in Nassau, but in Puerto Rico with other offices in the Miami area. As a result of the Castro expulsion, the Bacardi family has expanded around the world — no longer are they anchored to Cuba. However, Joaquin Bacardi, fifth generation of the founder, who now heads the company, has expressed a determination to return to Cuba.
“Rest assured,” he is quoted as saying, “when the embargo lifts, Bacardi is going to have a presence in Cuba again some day. There is absolutely no question of that.”
Speaking at a function at its Puerto Rico facility, when he confirmed that the firm would one day return to Cuba, he said:
“We are hopeful that the facilities (Bacardi owned before the revolution) that exist in Cuba will be returned to us. We have all the documentation to prove that that property is ours.
“Because that property has been abandoned for so many years – although it is being operated to produce other rums – we know that the conditions of that operation are very poor; they don’t maintain it very well. So, it’s going to require a significant capital investment,” he predicted.
Speaking with a younger generation of the family after last week’s lifting of the embargo by the US, it was the feeling that the day of the return would not come before the Castros have left the scene.
It was his personal feeling that the family would not be welcome because those in Cuba who have now acquired the Bacardi properties will not want to relinquish them without a battle.
From what we recall of the departure of the Bacardi plant from the Bahamas to Puerto Rico, it was found to be easier to operate with Puerto Rican labour, and obtaining permits for essential staff than remaining in the Bahamas. Also, the change in the European tax law no longer made the Bahamas an essential headquarters.
By the eighties, the Bahamas’ “Numero Uno” position, as a PLP leader proudly called it, was being threatened by other Caribbean islands whose leaders looked at the lucrative tourism business and decided they wanted a part of the action. The first threat came from Jamaica and its all inclusive tourism industry, sparked by the Issa family, now the owners of Breezes, Cable Beach. Other islands also seriously entered the business.
Soon the Bahamas’ “Numero Uno” position was threatened, and eventually lost.
Not only has its position been lost, but it has recently been classified as an “armed conflict zone” by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation’s 2014 Global Status Report on Violence Prevention.
The Bahamas is now listed as number 11 out of 20 of the most homicidal countries in the world. According to the report, it said instances of robbery, rape and homicide are common throughout the Bahamas. Tonight (Sunday) as we write this article, the police have just sent out a report of another homicide. This brings our murder rate for the year to 118, one short of last year’s total.
However, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe is not only hoping to cash in on Cuba’s bonanza as a partner in the business of tourism, but is now looking to lure tourists from China and Russia. How can he possibly hope to attract tourists from such faraway places — especially considering that Russia’s economy is now in free fall — to islands with such a crime-ridden reputation?
“I think for the Bahamas it is a chance for us to focus on improving the quality of our product,” Mr Wilchcombe said.
“We are known as high-end. You have places around like the Dominican Republic that offer lower rates than we do. There is no doubt Cuba will have better rates, but we are high-end and we have to ensure that the cost is met with quality. You will find people drifting to Cuba because of the allure, but it is not something that we are concerned about. They were blockaded for more than five decades so there is a mystique, people want to see Cuba today. We have to ensure that we are finding ways to get to the Asian and the Russian markets.”
We also have to find a way to match our high-end reputation with quality — something that we cannot boast of today.
High cost without quality and efficient service is something that our union leaders have to understand. The Bahamas is quickly pricing itself out of the market. Gone are the “Numero Uno” days.