News that the USA is to begin normalisation of relationships with Cuba, broken off since 1961, has not sent ripples around the region and the world, but set off a tidal wave.

For Jamaica, and some other Caribbean countries, we can take the haughty position of welcoming the USA to the club, which we joined in 1972, with Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad, when we established diplomatic relations with Cuba which helped to end Cuba’s diplomatic isolation. Our then prime minister, Michael Manley, a great leader, believer in social change, and political visionary, and never one to do things to please the USA, was one who saw the need to support our regional neighbour with such relations. Cuba has been good to us in return many times over, in terms of financial, cultural, and professional support. In our little way, we helped Cuba survive.

Our foreign minister yesterday on RJR said that three things he did not expect to see in his lifetime included: a man walking on the moon, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, and the USA normalizing it’s relationships with Cuba. Oddly, he did not add the election of a black president in the USA. Perhaps, for a Jamaican, that was a given. However, Barack Obama seems to understand some of the important things about cohesion in the Caribbean region.

The new wave has raised concerns about Jamaica’s economic future, especially as a tourist destination. I’ve rarely hesitated to say that Jamaica took many wrong turns in developing its tourism industry. Its focus in sand, sea, and sex could never help us stand out against strong competition. We have comparative advantages elsewhere, including in our fantastic nature, culture and food. But, we played coy with exploiting those in ways that would be attractive and supportive of them.

Jamaica should be worried. It has a tourism product that is less attractive than it should be. Part of the problem is that we’ve tourist entrepreneurs who have not built substantially on Jamaican inputs, besides labour and land. Take food inputs. Local agriculture is not integrated with tourism, in part, because it has not met production levels or quality standards to meet the needs of the tourism sector.

What is the real point of programs like ‘grow what we eat, eat what we grow’ when we don’t focus on getting that same message accepted by a major national food consumer?

We have attractions that do not attract. The Outameni fiasco showed that we are unable to get value out of something that should be successful as a tourist attraction. Why? People were so unmoved by it that they could not even bother to comment on an Internet site like TripAdvisor, even to complain.

We have natural attractions that are woefully undersold. We treat them much as the vendor who stands holding a bunch of guineps–hoping someone will pass by and buy. Do we understand how to market ourselves?

What is the impression we give to visitors? Come to Kingston’s main airport and head into the city. What do you notice? I know. It’s garbage and dirt, bad smells, and many eyesores. Have you ever seen a floral display on Sir Floriel Glasspole Highway? Why? We don’t like beauty? Citizens will steal them, like they take things off the Christmas tree set up in a city park?

We’ve a nation that’s not vested in tourism. It seeks to exploit visitors by harassing them, rather than offering good services for which people would pay. They get away with it. Why? We have law enforcement agents who don’t do that, but also exploit and harass.

Our society has become comfortable with horribly high levels of violent crime. Who in their right mind wouldn’t be scared witless to come to Jamaica? Visitors love the protection offered by all-inclusive resorts. Our slums could be the way ahead. Brazil has made its into tourist attractions, with guided tours of favelas. It may seem mawkish, but it’s an opportunity for those who can tolerate being spectacles. But, Brazil also raised investment in the favelas, with wireless Internet access, improved sanitation and transport, and security. It may not work in Jamaica, but what have we been thinking about these areas? Just let them rot?

Downtown Kingston could be one of the epic places to visit, but it’s rundown state well reflects the confused thinking of much of our national policies. We don’t have to look hard to see how urban renewal and restoration have catalyzed growth. Look at London’s Coventry Garden. Look at how Germany rebuilt the old city and town centres.

Some have seen that one way forward may be to twin Cuba and Jamaica. This may work, but I would like to think more about the implications. Americans may be smitten with direct access to Cuba but novelty alone won’t sustain visitor levels. We’ve found that.

We offered sun, sand and sex, and others can, too. We need to offer our culture and nature away from the coast.

We need to be less rigid. We have yam parks in a few rural areas that are poorly used, yet have none on the north coast, where this could be novel food for tourists. Why?

I think that thinking is not our strong point. We’ve been shown up too often in that area. Cuba coming closer to the USA may really show us what we’ve wasted.