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U.S.-Cuba Travel Shouldn’t Faze Other Caribbean Destinations

Image: Tourists in Cuba

In this Dec. 19, 2014 photo, tourists sunbathe as a vendor sells kites decorated with Cuba's flag on a beach near Havana, Cuba. Desmond Boylan / AP

Other Caribbean travel destinations have little to fear, for now, from the news that some Americans will soon be allowed to travel to Cuba without prior permission.

Slews of Americans fired up their computers and mobile devices and typed in “Cuba” and “vacation” soon after President Barack Obama announced plans to normalize relations with the Caribbean country in December. Cuba has been officially off limits to American travelers for decades.

“Searches for Cuba jumped 360 percent, comparing the day of the announcement – December 17 – with the day before and the same day the week prior,” said Kurt Weinsheimer, vice president of business development and partnerships for data marketing company Sojern.

There was also a spike of concern for what the opening of Cuba to U.S. tourists might do to the tourism industry in Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean.

Like many of those destinations, “Cuba has magnificent beaches and a fascinating history” said travel expert Arthur Frommer. But pent-up desire for U.S. travel to Cuba “will obviously cut into a certain amount of traffic,” he said.

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Traditional Caribbean destinations popular with U.S. tourists, “would be foolish not to worry,” said Pauline Frommer who, with her father, serves as co-president of Frommer Media. But because hotel capacity, air routes and other tourism-oriented infrastructure in Cuba are in need of improvement, the full impact of the liberalization will not be felt for a couple of years, she said.

“As more Caribbean countries open their frontiers, it’s better for all of us."

For now, Western comforts that American tourists find in other Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico “are virtually non-existent in all but a handful of Cuban resorts,” said Lorna Parkes, Lonely Planet's Destination Editor, Central America and the Caribbean, “So reducing barriers to travel to Cuba is highly unlikely to detract from the package-holiday favorites that American travelers love.”

If anything, said Parkes, the lifting of travel restrictions for U.S. visitors to Cuba “will only help encourage visits to the region as a whole."

The rising tide

That’s what tourism officials in Puerto Rico believe.

“As more Caribbean countries open their frontiers, it’s better for all of us,” said Mari Jo Laborde, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for the government-owned Puerto Rico Tourism Company.

Laborde expects travelers to plan to visit both Puerto Rico and Cuba, or at least fly to Cuba with a connection in Puerto Rico, and notes that many Puerto Rican residents have strong family ties to Cuba.

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The normalization of relations between U.S. and Cuba may create an opportunity for Cubans to visit Puerto Rico, she said. Many corporations have their Caribbean headquarters in Puerto Rico, which means more opportunities for business travel between Cuba and Puerto Rico.

“We don’t see the relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba as a threat,” said Laborde, “We see it as an opportunity.”

The Caribbean Tourism Organization agrees. “Last year we welcomed over 12 million Americans to our shores,” the CTO said in a statement, “An opportunity to substantially increase that number will be welcomed.”

On Friday, Cuba's top diplomat for U.S. affairs told MSNBC that an increase in Americans jetting to Cuba could happen as soon as this year, if the U.S. eases travel restrictions.