GLOBAL ECONOMY

Cuba's Cold War charm has D.R. wary about losing U.S. tourists to next-door neighbor

American tourists at the Casa de Campo resort  in La Romana, 70 miles east of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

American tourists at the Casa de Campo resort in La Romana, 70 miles east of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Both have miles of white sand beaches surrounded by crystal-clear blue seas and are gently rocked by calming Caribbean breezes.

One, however, has been a major vacation destination for tourists from the United States for decades, while the other has been closed to anyone holding an American passport for over 50 years and is just starting to open up to U.S. travelers.

As the U.S. moves to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba – a change that has many adventurous Americans salivating at the opportunity to travel to the so-called pearl of the Antilles – hotel owners and tourism officials on the nearby Dominican Republic are warily watching the events to see how it will affect the travel industry in their country.

"We are closely monitoring the process," Simón Suárez, the president of the Dominican Hotel and Restaurant Association told Fox News Latino. "We can already see that there will be an effect on the Dominican Republic because of the demand by Americans who want to go to Cuba."

With the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana creeping forward, U.S. citizens actually freely traveling to Cuba for vacation purposes may be a long way away, but that doesn't mean that Americans aren't trying to get down there.

We run head to head in the sun and sand departments with Cuba...But the Cuban charm that is something we have to compete with.

- Simón Suárez, the president of the Dominican Hotel and Restaurant Association

When CheapAir.com became the first major booking site to offer flights to Cuba (albeit with some caveats) the company received 10,000 search requests for flights to Cuba in the first two hours they were offered. Cheapflights.com, another search site, also saw a spike in interest in Cuba immediately after Obama announced an easing of travel and trade restrictions, with the island jumping to fourth on the list of most searched Caribbean destinations, behind Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Michael Zuccato, of California-based Cuba Travel Services, told Fortune Magazine recently that he expects his business to increase 50 percent to 200 percent over the next several years and Michael Sykes, founder of Cuba Cultural Travel, has already made moves to sure up around 10,000 rooms in anticipation of increased visits from the U.S.

While there may not be an easy route yet for Americans to get to Havana, some U.S. citizens could get there by using one of the 12 legal reasons – including visiting family, professional research, attending educational or religious activities or participating in performances, exhibitions or competitions – and then enjoy some R&R on the side.

"There's an ongoing and growing interest in Cuba," said Emily Fisher, the head of North American Communications for Cheapflights.com, to Fox News Latino earlier this month. "The people who are interested in going are interested in getting a snapshot of Cuba before it changes."

This idea of Cuba – the beat-up 1950s Chevrolets, crumbling post-colonial architecture and anti-imperialist propaganda – poses a bigger threat to the Dominican tourism industry trying to attract U.S. visitors than its neighbor's beaches and weather. For decades, U.S. travelers have been denied these iconic, Cold War-era relics and now many want to see them for themselves before outside investment turns the island into a more traditional tourist destination like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the slew of other islands dotting the Caribbean basin.

"We run head to head in the sun and sand departments with Cuba," Suárez said. "But the Cuban charm that is something we have to compete with."

Cuban charm – or Cuban decay, depending on who you ask - may be a major attraction to some American travelers, but Dominican hoteliers and travel businesses are betting that in the long run their well-founded tourism sector, value and easy access to a number of major U.S. metropolitan areas will win out over the exoticism that Cuba offers.

Dominican destinations like Punta Cana, La Romana and Samana – home to some of the country's most well-known all-inclusive resorts – all offer the modern amenities and luxuries lacking in many parts of Cuba. Even with the opening up of Cuban to foreign investors from countries like Spain and Russia – and soon possibly the U.S. – experts in the Dominican Republic say it will take years for Cuba to catch up with their country in terms of these luxury amenities.

"The Dominican Republic today has better suited infrastructure for the U.S. market, particularly related to five-star resorts," Alex Zozaya, the CEO of Apple Leisure Group, the largest U.S. tour operator in the Caribbean. "It will take a few years for Cuba to catch up with the infrastructure, but it will happen as the opportunity is there."

Still, Zozaya admitted that "Cuba has all the ingredients to be a great destination for Americans as it has been for years for the European, Canadian and Latin American market."

The opening of Cuba to U.S. tourists – whenever that happens – is certainly on the minds of the Dominican tourism sector, but until that actually occurs most local travel experts seem secure in their country's place as the leader of tourism in the Caribbean.

Cuba in 2014, with only the U.S. restricting travel to the island, saw 3 million foreigners visit the island, while the Dominican Republic recorded more than 5 million visitors, which helped the $61 billion country’s economy expand 7.1 percent last year -- compared to Cuba's 0.8 economic expansion.

"We are not concerned that there is something in Cuba that we cannot compete with, either in the short term or in the long term," Suárez said. "The Dominican Republic exceeds Cuba's performance in almost every aspect of the market."

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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