To cheers and applause from Cuban exile supporters in Little Havana, located in Miami, Florida, President Donald Trump on Friday announced the roll back of crucial pieces of a deal forged during the waning days of the Obama presidency, that eased many restrictions the American government had placed on its citizens relative to Cuban engagement.
Mr. Trump will reinstate travel and commercial restrictions eased by Mr. Obama last year, during that administration’s attempts to obtain additional concessions from the Cuban government.
“We will not be silent in the face of communist oppression any longer,” Mr. Trump said at the Manuel Artime Theater, named for a former supporter of Fidel Castro who became a leader of Brigade 2506, the land forces that spearheaded the United States-led Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. “Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba.”
On the surface, the announcement appears to benefit the territory; Cuba, if opened to full commerce with America, including travel, serves as an immense threat to not only the U.S. Virgin Islands’ tourism product, but much of the Caribbean, with industry leaders meeting on multiple occasions last year to discuss the potential impact.
But while Mr. Trump’s six-page directive signed following his speech on Friday will somewhat temper Cuba’s burgeoning tourism product, it keeps in place most of the key policies implemented by Mr. Obama.
Under Mr. Trump’s policy, Americans will no longer be able to plan their own private trips to Cuba, and those who go as part of authorized educational tours will be subject to strict new rules and audits to ensure that they are not going just as tourists. And American firms and citizens will be blocked from doing business with any company controlled by the Cuban military or its intelligence or security services, a move that bars American engagement with important parts of the Cuban economy, among them some parts of the country’s tourist sector.
But the directive leaves open embassies in Washington and Havana, and cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will be protected under an exception from the prohibition on transactions with military-controlled entities.
In essence, Mr. Trump’s announcement on Friday allowed him to claim fulfillment of a campaign promise, while leaving a vast portion of the Obama policies intact.
In 2015, Department of Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty said it would be “totally unrealistic not to acknowledge and plan for the inevitable risks associated with a new, large competitor in the region.”
“We will face increased competition for visitors in the Caribbean, especially during the 2-5 years as travel restrictions are slowly lifted. There is a curiosity for Cuba, having been off limits for half a century, and it should be anticipated that there will be some initial impact on visitor arrivals,” she said, her comments ringing true even after Mr. Trump’s announcement.
Yet, while Cuba’s tourism resurgence is a big part of the problem in the territory’s efforts to grow its product and keep it relevant, Havana is only one player in a multi-prong threat that includes neighboring ports like Puerto Rico, Tortola and also St. Maarten, whose governments are investing heavily in rebranding, extending and promoting their own tourism offerings. Because of the heightened competition, the USVI will see contraction in the coming years.
The territory in 2016 experienced what Mrs. Nicholson-Doty described in March as a “significant” decline in port calls, and the trend is expected to continue through 2018, which will represent an overall drop in port calls by 11 percent, she said. The commissioner added that cruise traffic in St. Thomas is projected to decline by 11 percent through 2018, while St. Croix is expected to see an increase of 48 percent over the same period. But the overall drop will still be about 11 percent, as St. Thomas registers the lion’s share of cruise traffic.
For Governor Kenneth Mapp, whose reelection bid in 2018 hinges in part on his ability to bolster the territory’s economy, a turnaround in the current trajectory is crucial. He said at a recent Ports of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas meeting that the tourism product must be re-imagined if the territory is to remain competitive.
“We are competing in a changing, dynamic environment and are in need of a complete shake-up of our business models,” Mr. Mapp said. “We need to develop not only what people want today, but also anticipate their future needs. The key is to respond to visitors even before they realize what they need. That’s what this task force is all about.”