Tourism Outlook for T&T Carnival 2011

Before we talk about 2011, it may be a useful exercise to reflect on 2010.  The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) recently released provisional 2010 numbers.  Focusing on stay-overs instead of cruise visitors (my personal bias, I must confess), the numbers confirm what most expected.  Yes, 2010 was a rough year, but it was also a ‘mixed’ year for Caribbean tourism.  I say mixed because the numbers show that Trinidad and Tobago's destinations were down 6% (January to March). Still, Barbados rebounded and was up 3.8% (January to October), St Lucia was up 15.4% (January to October), and that powerhouse called Jamaica was up 4% (January to August) to 1.4 million visitors.

It comes as no surprise that the biggest growth was, of course, seen in the Spanish Caribbean.  From a tourism perspective, it may be best to call 2010 the ‘return of Cancun’ as they surged ahead 16.5% to 1.4million (January to July).  A great comeback story if ever there was one.  Elsewhere in the Spanish Caribbean, Cuba was up 3.4% to 2 million (January to October), and the Dominican Republic pushed up 3.5% to 3.4million (January to October) stay-over visitors.

As I crunched the numbers, two things jumped out at me.  Firstly, aside from volcano disadvantaged Montserrat, Trinidad and Tobago was the only Caribbean destination that only knows how many people visited up to March 2010.  Remember that this is December 2010!  This means that our data-driven decision-making capacity is restricted at best because, as we learned in Business school - if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.  Secondly, it hit me like a brick that February 2010 arrivals (i.e., for Carnival 2010) were down an unbelievable 26.5%.

Make no mistake, Carnival 2010 was bad.  The Trinidad Hotels, Restaurants and Tourism Association (THRTA) pointed out that for carnival 2010, Port-of-Spain’s room stock increased by 425 rooms. There were about 10,000 room nights available, compared to 7,574 room nights in 2009. To fill all these rooms, rates came down by 17.6 % in February 2010, but occupancy levels were still down 6.5 % on 2009.  For hoteliers to cut rates and receive fewer guests at their calendar year's busiest time was tough. But it was not just the hotels feeling the pinch; all tourism stakeholders did.

I have been reliably informed that even that terrible decline in Trinidad and Tobago arrivals is deceptive because it masks what is happening in Tobago in particular.  Tobago’s decline is much worse and is said to be in ‘freefall.’  Nevertheless, I am among those who prefer to focus on solutions instead of problems. With that in mind, perhaps some measures could still be considered as we fast approach Carnival 2011.  I say this when stakeholders are already complaining that Carnival 2011 bookings look worse than 2010.

But as it is presently structured, Trinidad carnival is perhaps more about us as locals and Diaspora (known as VFR in the industry) than general overseas visitors (as appears to be the case with St Lucia Jazz).  Despite this focus, Dr. Keith Nurse’s research published in the press in February 2010 reported that mas players spend about $93.4 million, and fetes earn over $500 million as part of a total carnival economic contribution of $1.3 billion. So we see the potential right there—a diamond in the rough that is already valued in the TT billions. Maybe if we cut and polish it a bit, it would easily be valued in the US billions. IRS Singapore

Here are three Carnival 2011 suggestions to consider as the debate progresses.  Firstly, we need to deal with airlift.  We know that given the number of available beds, we need more inbound seats.  As I mentioned in my last column, however, part of our national airline’s present mandate is to defend market share.  This means that they have a vested interest in leveraging their fuel subsidy to ‘discourage’ incoming charters and scheduled carriers who wish to service our destination.  Somehow, an economically feasible compromise needs to be worked out where Charters, especially, are protected or even encouraged because we have far fewer seats than available beds.

Secondly, we need to bring bands together with hotels and ideally with available seats to create ‘packages.’  This clearly is not new as Cascadia Hotel was the first to develop a Tribe relationship.  Today others have followed as Hilton now has a package of sorts with Spice.  I am sure others, but costumes and beds still need to be packaged with available seats.  I am only aware of Carnival Burnout doing this.  We need public-private-partnerships where these entities are supported, facilitated, and effectively promoted by the state.  This takes me to market.

Thirdly but very importantly, is marketing.  Marketing is useless without an acceptable product to sell.  Once the affordable seats are created and packaged as suggested above, we are almost there.  The lowest hanging fruit remains the Diaspora.  Diaspora also doubles as our overseas salesforce  - which Barbados has recognized as they created incentives for overseas Barbadians to encourage foreigners to visit “home.”   Given the private-public-partnership approach, it may help leverage the Diaspora networks around entities like Poison UK or online communities like TriniJungleJuice and Torontolime.  These networks have already captured the target audience and, hopefully, could be relied upon to help encourage visits, especially for key festivals like Carnival 2011.

From a tourism perspective, the outlook for Carnival 2011 may be bleak, but it is not too late.  Someone reminded me that a definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.  It is time to try something new.

My name is Derren Joseph, and I love my country.   As always, I end by saying that we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land despite our challenges.  Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in the future of our beloved country.

Feel free to email me at derren43@yahoo.com

You can reach me as well at derren@advancedamericantax.com.

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