By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) yesterday called for a National Plan to counter Cuba’s eventual opening to US tourists, warning that this nation’s “stronghold markets” will be endangered by its western neighbour.
Stuart Bowe, the BHTA’s president, told Tribune Business that a “collective” response was needed by the Bahamas to combat the increased tourism competition that Cuba will represent.
Responding to Tribune Business questions, Mr Bowe said it was impossible to predict how successful the Bahamas’ Cuban counter-measures will be, but said the situation presented opportunities as well as challenges.
“The Bahamas’ exposure is greatest in the areas where we have historically enjoyed a position of strength; proximity-led impulse markets in the US, such as Florida; cruise markets, luxury cruise, yachting and fishing industry – all of which have been strong markets for the Bahamas,” Mr Bowe said, when asked which market segments would be most threatened.
“Cuba’s opening will certainly impact the Bahamas and the region as a whole. The Bahamas has benefitted from the closure of Cuba since 1959. In addition, Cuba will undoubtedly target similar markets in the southern US, Midwest, and Northeast states: a present stronghold for the Bahamas.”
The BHTA president’s warning echoes that of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), which earlier this week warned that Cuba’s opening will immediately threaten more than 20 per cent of the Bahamas’ stopover visitor market.
A CHTA position paper, said Cuba’s proximity to the US will act as an immediate draw for Florida’s ‘impulse’ traveller market, which currently gravitates to the Bahamas for short-term stopover vacations.
As it relates to the state of Florida as a source market, Cuba’s location will draw the attention of those travellers who have traditionally travelled spontaneously and impulsively to the Bahamas, a country which has relied on Florida for generating over 20 per cent of its arrivals for some time,” the CHTA paper warned.
Mr Bowe yesterday told Tribune Business that “while it is difficult to gauge specific time frames” in terms of when Cuba will fully open to US tourists, he endorsed the CHTA’s sentiments that “the time to act is now”.
“A National Plan is needed to address the potential ramifications of Cuba’s opening,” Mr Bowe said. “The goal is to be proactive and develop internal strategies, and align with the regional bodies such as the CHTA and CTO to capitalise on the strengths of all stakeholders.”
Emphasising that the BHTA wanted to work on this initiative with the Government, and agencies such as the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Education, Mr Bowe added: “ A collective effort is required to combat the new competition for our number one industry.”
He revealed that the BHTA’s newly-created Cuba Commission has been tasked “to research, develop and implement new, innovative operating strategies to combat the entrance of Cuba into our tourism markets”.
It will also work with the likes of the CHTA on its proposed Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative, a strategy that modelled on the existing Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) that allows the region’s exports to enter the US on preferential terms.
The CHTA’s plan is for the region and US to agree on, and embrace, tourism as a key trade, investment, growth and employment tool. In doing so, the intention is to grow the visitor arrivals market to the Caribbean, thus ensuring that Cuba’s opening does not ‘split the pie’ with other nations and they thus all maintain their respective market shares.
Backing such an approach, Mr Bowe told Tribune Business yesterday: “There are opportunities in the face of competition. By way of example, the creation and promotion of multi-destination/shared experiences for certain long-distance travel markets, such as the European and Asian markets, may provide an opportunity for the Caribbean as a region.
“The Bahamas, with its robust relationship with air carriers and subsequent strong positioning with route allocations, could well be poised for combined Cuba/Bahamian experiences, which would provide travellers with indigenous experiences in both destinations.
“In addition, the BHTA believes Cuba’s ‘opening’ to be an opportunity for the private and public sectors to galvanise existing efforts to re-examine our tourism product, and develop new strategies to strengthen our product offering such as: Attention to customer service; the promotion of Bahamian culture and heritage; and enhancement of product offerings in our Family Islands.”
A full opening of Cuba to US tourists is still likely to be some way off. That is because Congressional approval, always a difficult ask, is required to completely lift the US trade embargo. And then there are the outstanding multi-billion dollar reparations claims by US companies for assets seized by the Castro regime that have to be addressed.
“The Caribbean, the most tourism dependent region in the world, could use a good shaking up,” the CHTA paper said this week. “For decades, with few exceptions, it has relied on its natural advantages of sun, sand, sea, welcoming populations and, more than anything else, its relative proximity to the United States, the largest economy on earth, for much of its success.
“For decades, many Caribbean governments appear to have grudgingly accepted the employment and foreign exchange benefits delivered by their tourism economies but have not provided the kind of attention and support to tourism that could further reduce the crushingly high and debilitating levels of unemployment and national debt which often plague their countries.
“Relatively little effort has been spent on turning the most tourism dependent region in the world into the most tourism competent. The coming Cuban disruption just might be the tonic that the countries need, individually and collectively, to build the kind of strategic approaches to tourism development that will yield sustainable results for its citizens.”