The sight of the Stars and Stripes being hoisted over the newly opened US embassy in Cuba was one of the most visible signs yet of the diplomatic rapprochement between the long-term foes. If President Barack Obama gets his way, the US Congress will soon go further still and lift its 55-year-old trade embargo on the island.

Such a move would be a major boon to the Cuban economy, not least by unleashing a torrent of big-spending American tourists on the island, which has largely been starved of such arrivals for more than half a century. This, however, could prove disastrous for some of the small islands elsewhere in the Caribbean which are heavily dependent on tourism.

They could see much of the US tourism trade they have come to reply on decamping to the large, and quite possibly cheaper, new competitor in their midst. “Although the embargo and travel restrictions remain in place, an eventual lifting of sanctions would be a watershed event for the region,” says Claudia Calich, emerging markets debt manager at M&G Investments. “Countries that have the majority of tourists coming from the US are the ones that will stand to lose the most as these tourists head to Cuba instead. That could be disastrous for some.”

An IMF working paper published in 2008 said a hypothetical opening up of Cuba to US tourists would represent a “seismic shift” in the Caribbean’s tourism industry. “An industry-wide shock such as this occurs once in 100 years. Neighbouring destinations would lose the implicit protection the current restriction affords them, and Cuba would gain market share,” said the paper.

It warned that some countries’ over-reliance on US tourists left them “vulnerable” to such a “supply shock” and potentially facing long-term decline. The IMF paper’s central forecast was that an embargo-free Cuba would attract three million US tourists a year, making it the largest destination in the region for Americans.

To be fair, not all of these tourists will be siphoned off from its neighbours. Firstly, the IMF estimated that the opening up of Cuba would increase overall arrivals in the Caribbean by somewhere in the region of 2-11 per cent.

Secondly, Cuba would face some short-term supply constraints as it builds its tourism infrastructure to cope with an influx. The IMF’s 2008 assessment (which has not been updated since) suggested Cuba had “substantial” excess capacity, with enough hotel rooms to cope with a doubling of tourists.

However, three million extra tourists would have implied a more than three-fold increase from the 1.4 million it was attracting at the time, implying that some of its Canadian and European visitors would be displaced, quite possibly to other Caribbean islands.

The numbers have changed somewhat since then the IMF’s assessment, though. Cuba has seen its tourist arrivals more than double to three million a year, but its capacity has also risen. London & Regional, which announced plans for a $500 million luxury Cuban resort in June, is just the latest to eye-up the country’s potential.

The IMF’s 2008 figures, which take into account its forecast of the displacement of non-US tourists from Cuba as Americans arrive, may still be instructive however. And they are not pretty reading.

It predicted falls in visitor numbers of 35.5 per cent for the US Virgin Islands, 31.1 per cent for the Bahamas, 29.9 per cent for the Cayman Islands and 29.7 per cent for Aruba. Declines of 18 per cent or more were also foreseen for Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, Belize, Jamaica, St Kitts, Panama, St Maarten, Costa Rica and the Mexican resort of Cancun.

Perhaps unexpectedly, there were also a handful of winners, with the likes of Martinique and Guadeloupe seen as attracting more French-speaking tourists displaced from Cuba than they lose in American tourists.

For some of the losers, the impact could be painful, however. The small island of Aruba, located 29km from the coast of Venezuela, generates 88.4 per cent of its gross domestic product from tourism, the highest figure in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, a trade body.

A number of other Caribbean states, including the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Bahamas are also in the Top 10 most tourism-dependent countries in the world, with more than 40 per cent of the GDP being generated by the sector.

Several Caribbean states already have significant debt burdens and relatively lowly credit ratings, with the likes of the Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago on negative watch from at least one rating agency.

Calich says she remains comfortable holding sovereign debt from the Dominican Republic, a country with six million tourist arrivals a year and another country that the IMF saw as a small net gainer from the opening up of Cuba. But she says the analysis “has reinforced my credit concerns over smaller islands such as Aruba and the Bahamas”, where credit trends and ratings are “skewed to the downside”.

“Typically the smaller economies have less potential to diversify. For every Bermuda (insurance) or Cayman Islands (financial services), there are other countries that are struggling to diversify,” she adds. “As debt levels creep up there are also other likely losers from the Cuban opening.”

David Scowsill, chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council, is more upbeat, however. His assessment is that the Cuban industry is essentially operating at capacity, with visitor numbers rising 5 per cent last year (when the industry accounted for 10.4 per cent of GDP) and a further 14.3 per cent so far this year.

Moreover, it will take time for the country to build the hotels and other infrastructure it will need to accommodate more tourists, although it could probably host more cruise ships, which are not reliant on hotel beds.

This means, for the time being at least, a surge in arrivals from the US would essentially displace non-Americans, meaning they were up for grabs by neighbouring islands.

“I don’t see any negative impact, certainly for the next two to three years,” says Scowsill. (He makes the same assessment of Haiti’s plans to substantially expand its tourist infrastructure, which could potentially damage the Dominican Republic, given that the country’s share a land border and the Dominicans attract 15 times as many tourists as Haiti).

Overall, Scowsill notes that tourism to the Caribbean in general continues to rise, meaning there is scope for more winners than losers, whatever the US Congress decides.

— Financial Times