When looking at the economies of the Caribbean island region, a few distilled facts or significant trends help cast light on the region as a whole. Because of their geography, the islands do not have a large concentration of natural resources, unlike countries in Central and South America, where natural resources and raw materials form a disproportionately high (in comparison to other regions of the world) part of their export portfolios. The Caribbean island nation richest in natural resources is Trinidad and Tobago, because of its huge petroleum reserves. Petroleum is the largest export product in the Caribbean. The region also has important petroleum refineries, the largest of which is Hovensa, on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, with a production capacity of 495,000 barrels of petroleum daily (bbl/d). Other important refineries in the region that are aimed at exports are the Isla refinery on Aruba (with a capacity of 320,000 bbl/d), the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery in Trinidad and Tobago (with a capacity of 165,000 bbl/d), and the Cienfuegos refinery in Cuba (with a capacity of 65,000 bbl/d). There are also plans to build a refinery in Jamaica (with an expected capacity of 250,000 bbl/d). In total, the Caribbean region has a capacity of 1.8 million barrels of petroleum daily (bbl/d). The Hovensa and Isla refineries receive most of their crude oil from Venezuela and most of the Caribbean countries benefit from preferential financing for buying petroleum (both crude and refined products) that comes from Venezuela's PetroCaribbean project. Almost all of the petroleum refined in the Caribbean is exported to the United States. In 2008, Hovensa (U.S. Virgin Islands) exported 320,000 bbl/d to the United States, Isla (Aruba) exported 87,000 bbl/d and Pointe-a-Pierre (Trinidad and Tobago) exported 40,000 bbl/d. Metals (iron, nickel and bauxite) are the second largest natural resource export from the Caribbean and the largest concentrations of these metals are found on the islands of Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Guyana and Suriname, in the continental Caribbean, are also important exporters of bauxite.
Agriculture plays a secondary role among exports from the region, despite the history of agriculture dedicated to sugar and coffee. Because of the limitations on land, water and labor, the region is highly dependent on imported food, much of which goes to meet tourism demand. It is estimated that between 40% and 45% of imported food is used to supply the tourism industry. Additionally, much land that was previously used for planting sugar cane has been repurposed for non-agricultural use, such as tourism and real estate. The production of food for export on a large scale is mainly concentrated in the Greater Antilles, and the most important agricultural export products are tobacco, coffee, sugar, cocoa, rice, salt and fish.
Seen from a macroeconomic perspective, export products amount to about 71% of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of the larger islands. Further, many of the Caribbean islands are highly dependent on exports centered on a handful of raw materials that represent 50% of the total exports from the region. These include sugar from Cuba, bauxite from Jamaica, Suriname and Guyana, petroleum from Trinidad and Tobago and the Dutch Antilles, bananas from St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, Guadeloupe and Martinique, and coffee from Haiti. This general pattern among Caribbean economies is problematic for the future of the region because raw materials represent the slowest growing market at the global level. Another general tendency among exports from the Caribbean island countries is a lack of diversification among these sources of revenue and the products exported. On a historical level, the trend has been changing toward more diversification, as shown by both the diversity of the products exported and the diversity of export destinations. The percentage of exports to the United States, for example, has been dropping in recent years in favor of other European and Asian buyers. The portion of exports going to the United States dropped from 44% to 37% between 1990 and 2008, while the portion destined for China rose from 8% to 10%. Despite this, the region has a high dependence on export products along with low diversification (in both products and buyers) in its export portfolio. This is one of the reasons that many of the economies of countries and islands in the Caribbean have been classified as "vulnerable" or "at risk" societies.
The tourism industry is one of the few industries that have shown sustained growth, and tourism has come to play a central role in the Caribbean island economies since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. More than 20 million people from hundreds of corners of the world pass through the Caribbean each year, arriving on cruise ships, planes or boats. In the continental areas, nature tourism and cultural tourism also have an important role in places such as Costa Rica or the Mayan coast. Tourism, in turn, creates indirect industrial activity such as construction and the service industry (restaurants, tour operators). Together, these represent the largest source of income for the territory, above that generated by petroleum, offshore banking, or any other source of revenue. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, tourism represents more than 70% of Gross National Product (GNP) and provides more than 70% of jobs. In general, tourism accounts for approximately 30% of the GNP of the Caribbean region as a whole. In countries such as Cuba, by the middle of the 1990s the revenues from the tourism industry surpassed those from sugar. The same pattern can be seen throughout the region. Income from tourism in the entire region surpasses $18 billion annually and represents more than 50% of the income of many island states.
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