By Steven Dudash
June 29, 2015
For most Americans, Cuba is an isolated third-world island country with a backward economy and a regrettable political and human rights record. After 56 years of the Castro regime, this reputation has been well-earned, but there was a time when Cuba represented something quite different. During pre-revolutionary days, it was a hotbed for American tourism, a place where well-heeled East Coasters came to enjoy plentiful sunshine, opulent beaches and a nightlife scene that bustled year round. In many ways, parts of Cuba were Las Vegas before Las Vegas, right down to the unmistakable presence of nefarious underworld characters, brought to life most vividly by Godfather II, critical parts of which were set in Havana.
With the United States and Cuba having taken small steps to normalize relations in recent months, one of the questions that have been raised is whether the island can once again become a prominent destination for American tourists and, more broadly, a haven for outside business investment.
To be sure, a number of hurdles stand in the way before this can become a reality – not the least of which is that an American travel and trade embargo remains in place. Only Congress can change that, and despite the initial signs of a détente, opposition to Cuba’s leaders on Capitol Hill remains fierce, meaning the embargo being lifted is still anything but guaranteed.
Equally important is that Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure is in no position to support Western-style tourist activity. The country generally lacks many of the amenities needed to attract an influx of regular visitors, including a wide selection of luxury hotels, golf courses and high-quality restaurants.
Clearly, new investment will come slowly, and economic progress – if it comes – will be measured in years, not months, but just as Las Vegas emerged from the shadow of the mob to become a hub of tourism and legitimate business, so, too, can Cuba, even in the face of considerable structural and political obstacles.
Here are some industries that could benefit should Congress lift the current embargo and allow U.S. companies the freedom to pursue opportunities on the island:
**Hotels and Lodging: Any potential resurgence in Cuba starts here. Absent significant upgrades to current hotel and other lodging options, very few American travelers will consider Cuba a realistic vacation or business destination. Obviously, this would be an ambitious undertaking, but as the U.S. economy has improved in recent years, the fortunes of the world’s largest hotel chains have also surged, with Marriott (MAR) and Hilton (HLT) both up around 20 percent over the last year. By acting decisively, these companies could gain a valuable first-mover advantage over potential rivals and for years to come establish a dominant position in this potentially lucrative market.
**Shipping and Cruises: The U.S. recently granted permission to four small companies to operate limited ferry services to Cuba. And while American travel is still tightly controlled and Havana must first approve these companies’ licenses, this move may encourage bigger players such as Royal Caribbean (NYSE: RCL) to pursue Cuban routes. Cruise liners would likely be among the first businesses to benefit from the country potentially embracing more open economic policies, since the industry would be less affected by its lack of hotel infrastructure. Situated only 250 miles from Miami, Cuba would also attract attention from cargo ship operators, who would likely want to participate in trade activity were the embargo lifted.
**Housing and Real Estate: First, it’s important to note that almost without exception nonresidents are barred from owning real estate in Cuba. But as the two sides slowly pursue more normalized relations, there has been speculation that such restrictions could ease as part of a more formal future agreement to re-start American trade and travel. If so, it could somewhat ease the upcoming financial burden facing many Baby Boomers, many of whom are hurdling toward retirement woefully unprepared. Should Cuba open up, top retirement-community builders in the U.S. like Lennar Corp. (LEN) and Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. (HOV) could seize this opportunity to construct low-cost developments geared to older Americans looking for a more affordable housing alternatives.
**Gaming: Casino operators have hit a wall in Macau, where gaming revenues have fallen 12 straight months amid a softening Asian economy and corruption crackdown in China. Shares of Wynn Resorts (WYNN) are down more than 30 percent since the beginning of the year, while Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS) and MGM Resorts International (MGM) have shed over 10 percent over the same period. Obviously, these negative trends could reverse in time and revenues may come roaring back. Still, the always ambitious casino industry is unlikely to pass on the opportunity to enter a new, potentially profitable market – especially one so close to the East Coast now that Atlantic City, N.J., is a shell of its former self.
**Telecommunications: According to estimates, less than 20 percent of Cuba’s 11 million citizens have cell service. Even fewer have access to the Internet. U.S. policy makers pursuing closer ties with Cuba have prioritized further mobile phone penetration and getting more people connected to the outside world, having recently placed telecommunications equipment and services on a list of embargo exemptions. Naturally, this is an opening for one of the two American telecom giants, Verizon (NYSE: VZ) or AT&T (NYSE: T), to build more cell towers and establish a greater level of connectivity – which could ultimately lay the groundwork for better broadband access. Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) would also probably consider making investments in Cuba. Never shy about spending money on high-growth potential projects, the company has said expanding Internet access in the Third World is one of its key strategic goals moving forward.
Much of the above, of course, is pure speculation. There are no guarantees U.S. lawmakers will lift the longstanding embargo or, for that matter, that Havana will open itself up to outside business investment if they did. And even if those two things happened, it would take years for many of the these projects to come to fruition. Time will tell. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt for investors to keep an eye on Cuba for the future.
Steven Dudash is President of IHT Wealth Management, a Chicago-based firm with approximately $650 million is assets under management.