President Obama recently surprised America and the world by revealing that he wants to start the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. This piece of news came shortly after the announcement that US contractor Alan Gross -- who had been held prisoner in Cuba for years -- was being exchanged for three Cuban spies who had been incarcerated in the US. This all represents a huge change in US-Cuba relations, which have been extremely strained -- to say the least -- since the communist takeover of the early 1960s. After more than 50 years of isolation, a trade embargo and practically no diplomatic contact between the two nations, Cuba now seems poised to further open itself to the world, especially to its giant, powerful neighbor to the north. Many Americans have been travelling to Cuba for years, although not officially as tourists. With an expected opening of Cuba-US trade and diplomacy, the number of Americans visiting Cuba will almost certainly skyrocket. But what does this mean for fellow Caribbean island Puerto Rico, and its tourism sector?
Puerto Ricans in the travel and tourism industries have long feared an "opening" of Cuba. Although seen by most as inevitable, such an opening always carried with it the threat of Cuba stealing whatever thunder Puerto Rico has as a Spanish-speaking, Caribbean destination. And there indeed are some real reasons to worry. If Cuba opens itself up to American tourism, visitors will find a destination with beaches, old buildings and natural attractions just as good as the ones in Puerto Rico, along with a great musical scene, cheap and delicious rum and premium coffee and cigars. And on top of that, everything will be cheaper than it is in PR. For the American tourist looking for a more "genuine" travel experience, Cuba offers practically no tacky American fast food joints or big box stores (for now!), relatively little crime or extreme poverty and a slower pace. As it is, millions of tourists from around the world already enjoy what Cuba has to offer. Cuba received 2.8 million tourists in 2013 (not counting any Americans or Cubans). While Puerto Rico received more visitors in 2013 (3.2 million), it did not have to deal with a commercial embargo, nor was it diplomatically isolated from much of the world. More ominously, in March 2014 (the most recent month for which we have data), Cuba received more visitors than Puerto Rico did (359,384 vs 182,599 arrivals). So you could say that the problems for PR on the tourism front have already started.
This is all not to say that Cuba does not face serious challenges, not only in the tourism sector, but across the board. Aging infrastructure is probably the largest obstacle. Also, some of that non-consumerist charm that Cuba has may also serve to repel certain potential visitors, especially convenience-conscious Americans, who expect destinations to have wifi, digital cable, 24 hour restaurants and other amenities. As tourism increases, a rise in crime and other social ills can also be expected, and to some extent this is already being seen. But can Cuba become a modern, state-of-the-art, world-class destination within the next decade? It absolutely can. And unless other Caribbean destinations like Puerto Rico can keep up, Cuba will steal a good part of their tourist arrivals.
Puerto Rico has long been trying to step up its tourism game, with mixed results. Unfortunately for the island, electricity costs have always been (and continue to be) relatively high, and labor costs are higher than in the rest of the area. Add to this potential visitors' concerns over the island's much-publicized imploding economy and its crime rate, and it's easy to see how someone trying to pick a Caribbean spot for vacation in the near future will find it easier to just choose Cuba. The one thing PR will still have over Cuba is that travel to the island from the US requires no passport (as it is a US territory) and American visitors can come with the knowledge that they have the safety of being under the US flag. That, however, doesn't seem to have helped PR take any tourist arrivals from emerging destinations like the Dominican Republic. While the tourism picture in Puerto Rico has shown some improvement, and continues to do so in some areas (cheaper real estate may be one driver), it's going to have to become very creative and diligent in the medium and long term in order to not lose scores of tourist arrivals to an ascendant Cuba. Whatever the case, Americans visiting the Caribbean in the following years will have one more option when choosing a destination.