There are winners and losers in the newfound friendship between the United States and Cuba. The eventual lifting of restrictions will make it possible for American tourists to visit the formerly-off-limits Caribbean nation without first having to apply for a special visa.
Cuba will fill more hotel rooms, employ more people in the hospitality industries and, ideally, raise its meager GDP figures. It sounds like a win-win situation, at least from an economic standpoint.
But some people stand to lose from the warming relations.
More competition for popular Caribbean destinations
The Caribbean tourism scene has seen some shake-ups over the past 50 years. There have been hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes and even armed conflicts (in Grenada, for example). None of these things will change the industry as Cuba opening up to mainstream U.S. tourists.
Popular Caribbean destinations have been experiencing a kind of tourism heyday. Except for a few countries, tourism is the industry for the islands of the West Indies. American tourists in Cuba won't necessarily change that, but their interest in Cuba will create a more competitive environment. At least for the first couple of years, Cuba will benefit from plenty of free publicity and media buzz. Every travel journalist (and probably many general news journalists as well) will want to be among the first to travel to the "new" Cuba.
The worry is that when this happens, people who usually spend their winter vacation or spring break in Jamaica, Aruba or the Bahamas will be inspired to give Cuba a try. The country will still have to show these first-time visitors a good time if it wants them to return.
Should other islands be worried?
Cuba has some major positives that might help it jump-start its industry. It is geographically larger and more diverse than the competition. It has large cities (something many smaller countries in the West Indies lack). You can travel to multiple, distinctly different destinations inside Cuba. Other islands in the region can't offer as many choices to visitors.
Cuba does have some issues. Aside from the massive resort area of Veradero, the country's tourism infrastructure is lacking. The current state of the roads, hotels and restaurants might excite adventure-seekers and cultural travelers, but it will be a turn-off for those who like package tours in sleek resorts. Jamaica and the Bahamas will still have a distinct advantage among this group.
Cuba's tourism infrastructure will have to develop quite a bit before there is any major impact on the industries of other Caribbean destinations.
So there is no need for hospitality industry employees and businesses to panic just yet. But the data does hint at some major changes (and challenges) coming to Caribbean tourism.
Cuba can change the tourism industry
By number of visitors, Cuba is already the second largest destination in the region. In 2014, the island received more than 3 million visitors, and it is on pace to top that number this year. Only the Dominican Republic welcomed more tourists in 2014. Jamaica, in comparison, saw just over 2 million entries last year.
Currently, Americans traveling to Cuba must fit into one of 12 categories (such as traveling for charity or for academic study). Most U.S.-based tourists are Cuban-Americans, who are allowed to travel to visit relatives.
According to Cuban authorities, dropping all travel restrictions would result in an increase of more than 1 million American visitors per year. At least some of those million would have gone elsewhere in the region if Cuba was still off limits.
The role of the cruise industry
Another major factor is how the cruise industry will respond. Most cruise ships in the region call on U.S. ports. For decades, the embargo basically made it impossible for these ships to also stop in Cuba. The result was that Cuba was blocked from earning all the revenue that comes from being a port of call.
Opening Cuba's ports to cruise traffic could have an immediate impact on the region. It could be a problem for smaller islands in the area that rely on these day-trippers to bolster their tourism numbers. Besides Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, these cruise-friendly island nations include Turks and Caicos, the Caymans and the Bahamas.
Cuba will be a curiosity when it opens up. Getting repeat business from the initial wave of American tourists will depend on how the country can build up its infrastructure. Even when it's fully open to U.S. travelers, Cuba will probably not crush the tourism industry elsewhere in the region. That said, there may be a slow leak that will cause tourist numbers and tourism income to fall gradually in other countries. The question, then, will be how well Jamaica, the Bahamas and their peers can respond to this new competition.