Cuba’s tourism sector booms amid relaxed travel restrictions

16 June 2017 Consultancy.lat

After decades of travel restrictions, Cuba’s tourism numbers continue to climb indicating the beginning of a tourism boom for the socialist island. A new report titled “Taking the Long View on Cuba’s Tourism Opportunity” by The Boston Consulting Group explores North American interest in the island and provides key areas in which Cuban tourism can improve.

The number of tourists heading to Cuba almost doubled to 4 million people in the six years up to 2016. The overall increase in visitors has had an beneficial effect on the national economy, with tourism contributing almost 10% of the national GDP in 2016. The rise in tourist numbers has seen the GDP grow 3% over the past decade, which in turn has provided many Cubans with money from non-government streams. The average monthly government salary is around $25 — which approximately half of the population survives off of.

Although the United States continues to impose economic sanctions on the country, relations between the two nations are at their best point in years. The warming relations were reflected by President Obama’s visit to Cuba last year — the first US president to do so in nearly a century. When he arrived, President Obama stated that “it is a historic opportunity to engage with the Cuban people”, a sentiment apparently shared by thousands of Americans — with 285,000 taking advantage of relaxed travel requirements in 2016.

Travel to Cuba grows rapidlyThe report by The Boston Consuting Group (BCG) identifies Canadians as the biggest group of tourists to the island, accouting for 1.4 million annual visits. Meanwhile, American tourist visits rose by 77% in the past two years, in comparison to a 14 percent rise total tourist visits. For Americans wishing to visit the island, being granted a visa has become increasingly relaxed. Whereas in previous years, Americans could only obtain a visa through a “people to people” cultural exchange or missionary work, in mid-2015 the restrictions were lifted, and it was no longer necessary to organize travel through authorized groups. 

Being able to book and travel individually to Cuba has also seen a wave of US airlines begin servicing travel routes between the two countries. The number of flights between the US and Havana at the end of last year increased by a staggering 2,400% between September and December, the period directly after the easing of travel restrictions. Around the same period there was also a 3,300% increase in flights from the US to other Cuban airports.

Aggressive growth scaled back

The explosion of travel to the island during this initial rush period seems to have died down, though, with airlines scaling back service routes. Despite this decrease in demand, there is still cause for optimism according to the BCG report, which included survey data from past and potential US tourists to Cuba. The report estimates that tourism from the US will grow between 20 to 50% annually, and may reach 2 million visitors by the year 2020. 

As demand continues to grow, both US and Cuban tourism businesses will need to adapt to the boom. Tourism infrastructure in Cuba is still nascent due to decades of economic stagnation and underinvestment in basic infrastructure. Whilst the country strives to protect its cultural heritage, it has nonetheless planned over a hundred state-sanctioned priority projects in the tourism sector, including hotels, marinas, and golf courses.

“Cuba represents a huge opportunity for travel companies, but success will not be achieved easily," remarked report author Marguerite Fitzgerald. "Companies that accurately understand demand, take the steps needed to operate in a centrally-controlled economy, and invest for the long term will likely be rewarded.”

Digitization could add $240 billion to Mexico’s GDP by 2025

22 January 2019 Consultancy.lat

New in-depth analysis by McKinsey & Company ranks Mexico 55th in digital maturity out of 151 countries. When compared to countries with similar economic output, Mexico is in good shape, but the country has “yet to achieve the kind of world-class digital transformation that fuels productivity and economic growth.”

Countries that have adequately transformed, such as Estonia and Malaysia, have incomes close to Mexico, but punch “above their weight” when it comes to digital maturity. Mexico is about halfway there. Taking steps to improve its global digital position, however, could increase the country’s GDP by  7-15% (approximately $155-240 billion) by 2025. Such an increase would be powered by increased productivity and employment in existing industries, new digital businesses, a broadened expanded information-and-communication-technology (ICT) sector, as well as the successful labor force transition into the digital world.

Mexico is the second-largest economy in Latin America, meaning it is in the unique position to set the regional standard for a “digitally enabled” government.

For their analysis, McKinsey & Company researchers Alberto Chaia, Gonzalo Garcia-Muñoz, Philipp Haugwitz, Max Cesar, and Andre de Oliveira Vaz defined digital maturity using four categories: government, foundations, economy, and society. The study also laid out steps that Mexico could take to improve its digital maturity. Of these four factors, Mexico has the most work to do in digital economy and digital foundations, categories in which its scores are just below average – and which are highly correlated.

Digital maturity of Mexico according to McKiney

The bad news first

Digital foundations essentially encompass the ability of citizens to participate in a digital society. This means internet access, mobile networks, and so forth. “In 2016, Mexico had just 13 fixed-line broadband subscriptions for every 100 inhabitants” the analysis found. “The rate of subscription to mobile broadband is higher, at 61%, but this still leaves a sizeable portion of the population unconnected and thus spending additional time and money getting to physical centers to access government services.” This lack of access causes Mexico to rank 93rd overall in the digital foundations category. 

Mexico’s digital economy, in turn, is hindered by its “shaky” digital foundations. It sits in 92nd place of all countries surveyed. There is a lack of access to high-speed internet, as stated, as well as an unreliable postal service and a lack of bank accounts among the population, with just 40% of citizens aged over 15 having an account. These factors decrease the country’s potential to develop an e-commerce industry that is widely and conveniently used. Exports of ICT goods, as well, account for an astonishing less than 1% of all exported goods and services.

And now for the good news

Mexico’s digital government, which ranks 39th overall, has made great strides in recent years. The creation of gob.mx, for example, provides "a one-stop portal that consolidates 34,000 databases from 250 government institutions and 5,400 public services. The platform is described as the “centerpiece” of Mexico’s digitization efforts, allowing citizens easy access to important legal documents such as birth certificates, as well as automating internal processes, making workplaces tasks run more smoothly for government employees.

Despite this – and the appointment of a national digital strategy coordinator who sits on the president’s staff - Mexico “receives low scores from its citizens on their overall satisfaction with the convenience and accessibility of government services.” Citizen experience was the worst-rated of those group countries surveyed (Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, the United Kingdom and the United States). There was also a largest perception gap between the private and public sector.

How digital can boost Mexico’s GDP

A digital society, according to the report, “can improve the quality of life for citizens by fostering greater civic participation, providing access to information, and offering new tools for health and education.” As previously shown, Mexico is pushing such platforms, including several subsections of gob.mx, on which citizens can participate in public polls and discussions, and present potential digital solutions to serious societal problems such as earthquake detection systems.

Mexico is well on its way to achieving a “good” or “very good” digital maturity rating (right now, the country is “acceptable”). According to McKinsey, “There are three basic initiatives Mexican government leaders could consider putting on top of their priority lists [to speed the transition into the upper echelons of digitization].”

First, the Mexican government must define a digital vision and strategy. Second, it must link that vision to policymaking. Entwining the two ensures that digitization acts as a “lever” to a policy’s success. “To establish a clear link between its digital vision and public value, Mexico’s incoming administration may want to consider revisiting the country’s "National Digital Strategy" for 2013 and aligning it with Mexico’s current and future needs, as well as with the new government’s priorities,” the report states. A “test and learn” attitude toward linking digital vision and policy will also be necessary, as the only way to avoid repeated mistakes is by closely evaluating those that have been made, then planning accordingly. Adopting this attitude, according to the report, will necessitate more flexible budgetary strategies.   

The third suggested initiative is all about power to the people. Successful digital transformations are those that are centered around the citizens, rather than the institutions that serve and govern them. This means service delivery is key, and centralization of digitalization efforts – initially, perhaps, in the form of a council that would oversee governmental transformation – could greatly aid government agencies in getting the people what they desire. As Mexico transforms, so would the ways in which ideas are generated and put into action. For instance, the United States has the US Digital Service, which works with the White House, and Singapore relies greatly on the Government Technology Agency, which reports to the country’s president and implements digital strategies.

Digital maturity benchmark

Filling in the cracks

Because Mexico ranks on the low end of the “digital foundations” category, it is obvious that the other four categories, which by nature fall under the “foundations” umbrella, are potentially negatively affected. As such, McKinsey offers five steps that could be taken to strengthen the country’s digital infrastructure. 

Private companies, for one, could be offered incentives to provide broadband internet to “marginalized” communities, such as those in Oaxaca and Chiapas. The study points to India as an example, where the government-created National Optical Fibre Network (BharatNet) “successfully brought broadband services to approximately 115,000 villages, aiming to deliver broadband connectivity to 250,000 villages overall.” 

Talent is also an issue. “In recent years, Mexico has made significant strides to boost the number of college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM),” the report states. In 2016, 25% of university graduates with a STEM degree. 

But degrees aren’t so much the problem as education in general. “Only 17% of Mexicans graduate from college, making the talent pool small.” Programs that keep primary and secondary school teachers in the loop are a must – as are “reskilling” programs meant to train a percentage of the workforce that is soon to be displaced by technology such as automation. 

Rounding out the five suggestions are a system that easily and simply explains new regulations regarding technology - an invaluable resource for startups; the development of cybersecurity units required to monitor the security of such a large, overarching transformation; and a streamlined, interoperable model for data sharing across multiple government agencies. 

It’s an investment

The challenges and obstacles in Mexico’s path to digital transformation are not inconsiderable, but are neither without long-term reward. “Going digital will require an investment of financial resources, extensive coordination among the multiple stakeholders and levels of government, and new regulations governing the growing e-commerce and fintech sectors. It most likely would entail participation incentives for the private sector, since governments should not attempt to 'go it alone.' In the end, both sectors of society stand to reap the value digitization will sow.” 

Related: Mexico leads Latin America in robotization, followed by Brazil and Argentina.