Jamaican tourism numbers may be hit by US/Cuba detente

James Moss-Solomon (with the microphone), while (from left) managing diector of Real Oil Jamaica Oliver Chen, chief risk officer at GraceKennedy Cathrine Kennedy, and vice-president of export and market development at Jampro Robert Scott listen. There were participating in a panel discussion at a public forum on investment opportunities in Cuba at the University of the West Indies on Saturday.


With the continuing rapprochement between the US and Cuba, Jamaica's tourism numbers could be hard hit, according to Chris Tufton, co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute and a former Cabinet minister.

He was speaking at a public forum titled 'Cuba, Open for Business' at the University of the West Indies on March 7.

The US has recently loosened its travel ban on Cuba, meaning that Americans no longer need a government licence, although travel must be for an approved reason. Tufton said that as many as 250,000 tourists per year could be passing through Jamaican airports on their way to Cuba.

"What are the implications for Jamaica?" Tufton asked. "Those tourists don't need to go through Jamaica anymore, as they can fly direct."

For 2013 Jamaica had 1,860,935 stopover arrivals from foreign nationals, according to the 2013 Economic and Social Survey. A total of 1,272,262 were arrivals from the US, or about 63 per cent of total stopover arrivals.

But, according to James Moss-Solomon, executive in residence at the Mona School of Business Management, the figure could also mean that Jamaica is actually getting fewer tourists than believed. "We are counting the 250,000 passengers in our arrivals," he said. But the reality could be that 250,000 visitors are "just passing through".

The ease for Americans to fly to Cuba increased further on Tuesday when Internet site CheapAir.com announced it had become the first online travel agency to enable US travellers to book flights to the Caribbean island.

"Since the rule change, we have seen a surge in search volumes for travel to Cuba," said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com, in a news release on Tuesday.

CheapAir.com is now booking flights to Havana, the Cuban capital, from all cities in the United States, the release said.

Trade with Cuba

Meanwhile, Jamaican exports to Cuba are not non-existent, but have been slipping, according to Robert Scott, vice-president for export and market development at JAMPRO.

Exports to Cuba totalled US$2.1 million in 2014, Scott said -- down from US$3.65 million in 2013 and US$6.64 million in 2012.

But Jamaican businesses should look to Cuba as a potential market for their goods, according to several participants at the forum.

Jamaican companies "need to act now and quickly" to increase trade with Cuba, said Catherine Kennedy, chief risk officer at GraceKennedy.

"We cannot wait until Americans are lining up to invest in Cuba," she said.

"Our standard line is a little too rich for their blood -- a little too premium," Kennedy told the forum.

But cost is not the only factor, as taste is another. "Our Vienna sausages and soups are too spicy," she added.

GraceKennedy had looked into the market some 10 years ago, said Kennedy, who -- while enthusiastic about the potential -- told the Jamaica Observer that her company does not have any products on Cuban shelves.

JAMPRO, too, has credited Cuba as a market "with very great opportunity", Scott said. But he noted that the US already has a large presence in the Cuban market. "The US accounts for close to 40 per cent of Cuba's agricultural and food imports."

Published Date: 
Friday, March 13, 2015