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Don't Panic, Brand Jamaica strong says Minister McNeill as the US relations with Cuba soften some more

Published:Tuesday | April 14, 2015 | 4:59 PMDaraine Luton

ON THE day that the White House announced that United States President Barack Obama would remove Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, Jamaica's tourism minister disclosed in Parliament that the State is currently undertaking a study to evaluate the impact the normalisation of relations could have on the local sector.

Dr Wykeham McNeill, in opening the Sectoral Debate in the House of Representatives yesterday, said the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) is doing a study on the effects of the opening up of Cuba to the US market, which will be ready later this year.

"We are taking the matter seriously, but we should avoid overreaction and panic and recognise that the Jamaican Brand is strong and our product is world-class. We have met challenges before, and we will meet this one as well," McNeill said.

"When President Obama announced his policy shift late last year, I was very pleased because "it is the right thing to do", and we in this House have all wholeheartedly supported this move. Of course, there will be consequences. The fact of the matter is that even before this new policy was announced, we had been competing successfully with Cuba in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Latin America, and Europe, which are source markets for both of us," McNeill said.

His comments were made at least half an hour before his opposition counterpart, Shahine Robinson, speaking in the same Debate, described McNeill as non-responsive to calls she made for him to establish a working group comprising government and private sector stakeholders to systematically assess the likely impact of improved US-Cuba relations.

"Industry sources believe that if the pace of diplomatic negotiation continues as is, scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba could start within the next six months. Tour operators and travel companies are also keen on getting, or attaining a bigger footprint, in the Cuban market. The minister must take note of the fact that US citizens no longer need advanced permission naming the purpose of travel," Robinson said.

She said that the minister must ensure that the proposed working group is pulled together "forthwith and look quickly at strategies and a series of actions that will further propel Jamaica's tourism sector, whose growth numbers lag way behind several of our regional competitors".

McNeill had, however, already told the Parliament that in anticipation of the normalisation of relations between Cuba and the US, Jamaica, over the past two years, had been having serious discussions with Cuba.

"We were already well advanced with plans and programmes, anticipating the inevitable change in policy," he said.

McNeill said that late last year, Havanatur, a major tour operator out of Cuba, visited and had discussions with him and the director of tourism, along with other industry partners, to explore multi-destination opportunities.

"Next month, I will be going to the Commission of the Americas' meeting in Haiti at which the main topic of discussion will be multi-destination travel, an agenda which I initiated along with my colleague ministers of tourism from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and, of course, Cuba," McNeill said.

Nicola Madden Greig, the president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourism association, said the multi-destination approach is the way to go.

"We should look at it as an opportunity. Yes, there will be some challenges, and yes, some of our markets will look in that direction, but we have to see how we can partner with Cuba. There is always the possibility of multi-destination marketing. A lot of the companies and the hotels that operate in Cuba now also do operate in Jamaica, so there is the potential for partnerships," she said.

"We have to look at the whole Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti - that whole area - similar to how you market the Mediterranean, especially for long-haul visitors. When they are coming to the Caribbean, coming to Cuba, they can see Jamaica. When they are coming to Jamaica, they can visit Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti. We can market that whole section of the Caribbean because it now becomes possible with Cuba opening up," she added.