SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Caribbean tourism officials are pushing for a partnership with the U.S. government because of concerns that warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba will result in a significant loss of visitors to the rest of the region.
Cuba has seen such a surge in visitors that the fragile budgets of many tourism-dependent islands will be hit hard if they don't take action, Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, said Wednesday.
"If we continue to operate business as usual, and we all draw from the same pie and Cuba is in the equation ... there will be serious economic and employment consequences," he said in a phone interview.
The association seeks to create a Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative to help boost investment and travel across the region with help from the U.S. The plan would be modeled on the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a U.S.-led program in the 1980s that sought to boost trade in the Caribbean and Central America.
Comito also said the region should work together to boost overall investment and travel to the Caribbean.
"It's a little idealistic, but I think you need an element of that in this," he said. "A stronger Caribbean benefits everyone, including Cuba."
The association proposes the plan in a report that warns of Cuba's impact on the Caribbean and that was sent to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The report calls the opening of travel to Cuba for U.S. visitors "the biggest and most disruptive pebble to be dropped into the Caribbean pool in fifty years."
From January to early May, Cuba saw a 36 percent increase in U.S. visitors from the same period in 2014. It also had a 14 percent jump in other international arrivals, and Caribbean tourism officials say they expect those numbers to keep rising.
"Those countries whose focus has been on the United States as their primary source market and who have not felt any competition from Cuba ... will be surprised at how sophisticated and effective the Cuban marketing machine has become," the report says.
The association said the islands where the tourism business could be most affected are those closest to Cuba — Jamaica, Cayman Islands and the Bahamas.
It is unclear whether tourism officials on those islands support the association's plan or whether they have taken steps to help attract more visitors. Tourism officials in Jamaica and the Bahamas did not return messages for comment.
Cayman Islands Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell issued a statement saying that opening Cuba to visitors has increased people's awareness of the Caribbean.
"However, it is important to note that there are only limited and very specific categories of American visitors allowed to travel to Cuba, a barrier which the Cayman Islands does not have in place," he said.