September 30, 2020

Virgin Islands tourism community looks to opening of Cuba


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Nicholson-DotyBy Aldeth Lewin From Virgin Islands Daily News

ST. THOMAS – As the news about Cuba broke last week, the territory’s tourism industry had mixed reactions.

On one hand, the added competition in the region could reduce travel to the USVI. On the other, it could reinvigorate the Caribbean market and draw more people to the region, creating a spill-over effect that could land even more people on the territory’s shores.

The prevailing sentiment, however, was that while it is important to plan and carefully watch as the relationship between Cuba and the United States begins to improve, it is far too soon in that process to know just how it will affect the territory.

The slight thawing in previously icy relations between the two countries was announced last Wednesday when President Barack Obama reported that the two countries had released some prisoners from each side and that the U.S. State Department would be opening a U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in more than 50 years.

The announcement was clear that no final decisions have been made about changing the travel ban to Cuba by U.S citizens, and the trade sanctions against Cuba have not been lifted by Congress.

“We have to put it in perspective first,” Bolongo Bay General Manager and Chairman of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association Richard Doumeng said. “On a human level, any opening of societies is a good thing.”

He acknowledged that while it is understandable to be nervous about how Cuba may affect local business and individual livelihoods, it is hard to be upset about the potential for peace to come between the two countries.

V.I. Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty did not return calls last week, but sent a written statement on Saturday.

She said Obama’s plans to normalize relations with Cuba has a number of positive implications for relations between the two countries, but brings with it some challenges as well.

Nicholson-Doty said the U.S. Virgin Islands, along with other islands in the Caribbean, is used to competing with emerging destinations for the tourist dollar.

The threat of Cuba tapping into the American travel market has been looming for a while, and the territory remains focused on short and long term strategies to keep itself a top travel destination. Continuing to invest in the quality and diversity of the territory’s offerings for visitors will ensure the USVI will remain a desired destination, she said.

“However, the maxim ‘a rising tide raises all boats’ should hold true. This news puts the spotlight on the Caribbean region as a whole, widening the appeal for Caribbean vacations and providing a win-win opportunity for all,” Nichsolson-Doty said.

Hotel stays

Doumeng said while there will be an initial curiosity about Cuba from American tourists that may pull visitors away, he believes that will level off. He thinks that Cuba is a much larger threat to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands that the English-speaking, U.S. currency using island like the USVI.

“The Virgin Islands hotel industry and Caribbean hotel industry may have less to worry about than Mexico or the Dominican Republic,” he said.

Mexico and Domincan Republic have been cornering the market on enormous, inexpensive, all-inclusive resorts in Spanish-speaking Caribbean destinations.

“It will look like a similar product,” he said.

He said even the territory’s largest resorts look like boutique hotels compared to these mega-resorts like Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

“I think we’ll be OK,” he said.

Nicholson-Doty also acknowledged there will be an initial curiosity among American tourists.

“Though the rest of the world has long had access to visit Cuba, this change could have a significant impact on the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we draw nearly 90 percent of our visitors from the U.S.,” she said.

Even if travel restrictions are lifted, American tourists will still be traveling outside the country, and have to go through the normal international travel procedures.

“While entrance to Cuba will require American travelers to have a passport, the U.S. Virgin Islands remains an attractive option due to no passport requirement,” Nicholson-Doty said.

Cruise ships

The territory’s cruise industry may see more of an impact than the hotel industry.

West Indian Co. President and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boschulte said he has been monitoring the situation with Cuba for a while.

“It’s another signal for us in the territory that competition continues to grow around us,” he said.

The mega cruise ships that are typically filled with American travelers leaving from U.S. mainland ports have not been calling on Cuba because of the travel ban.

While Canadian and European travelers have been coming to Cuba for years, Cuba’s cruise ship ports are typically built for smaller ships, according to Boschulte. The existing ports are just not equipped to take the mega ships that call regularly in the territory.

“But that doesn’t mean that in five or seven years, they won’t be,” he said.

He said the territory’s best defense is to continue to serve the American visitor, keep the cruise lines happy with the product, and position the territory as an anchor stop on any cruise itinerary – even one that might contain Cuba.

“As these new exotic itineraries come up, all of a sudden you have a new market that’s been created leaving St. Thomas with a void,” Boschulte said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to readily position ourselves to take the largest cruise ships.”

Nicholson-Doty said she anticipates that Cuba would fall in a Western Caribbean itinerary for a cruise.

“We have to continue to do what we have started to remain competitive – augment our proactive marketing efforts, champion infrastructure enhancements, create appealing attractions, and improve our customer service,” she said.

Boschulte said the Caribbean as a cruising destination is still a growing market, and adding Cuba to the mix could strengthen that growth, which in turn would benefit the territory.

Despite multiple calls with cruise lines last week, the subject of Cuba never came up.

“They are much more concerned about what we’re doing here,” Boschulte said. “We will have conversations with the lines when we start to meet with them early next year.”

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