Rethinking Caribbean Tourism

Last month, there was a press release published on the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) website about the state of the industry.  While the press release mentioned that overall, the Caribbean welcomed an estimated 23.8 million tourists in 2011, or a 3.3 percent raise over 2010, these numbers do not tell the full story.  The real engine of regional growth was in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, which compensated for the continued decline in many English-speaking destinations.

USA and UK source markets performed poorly.  With 23 countries reporting, the region experienced weak arrivals from the UK for the third straight year, mainly due to a weak economy and increases in the Air Passenger Duty (APD).  Total 2011 arrivals from the UK increased thanks to increases to Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Montserrat, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines modestly.  But arrival levels were still below those of 2007, so the weak performance has been noticed for quite a few years.  It is also clear that with the USA and the UK’s traditional source markets in economic decline, the need to diversify to particularly Asian markets is greater than before.

I was talking about these trends with my friend Ishwar Persad.  Ishwar is originally from Princes Town, a former national open scholarship winner. He has worked with Trinidad, Tobago, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and, most recently, Montserrat.  Actually, Ishwar recently ran the Mount Kilimanjaro Marathon in Tanzania (4 hours, 39 minutes), raising US$5,000 for education programs in the country.  He is currently serving as a Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) volunteer in Tanzania. For this, his sixth marathon, he was the team leader for a group of 20-plus Tanzanian and Kenyan based-VSO volunteers and staff, who participated in the full marathon, half marathon, and the 5K run/walk.

Ishwar made four very important points, which I believe are worth sharing here.  Firstly, there is just too much emphasis on numbers and numbers growth and not enough on what he termed the “quality.”  This would mean focusing on visitor spending, reducing leakages, and creating more linkages with other sectors such as agriculture, entertainment, sports, etc.

Secondly, there is a need for more research on the performance of the industry.  This would lead to more data-driven decision making.  While many of the islands have excellent Tourism Master Plans, they remain dusty on shelves, and rarely is there the political will or management drive to execute these plans.  Plans which are critical to ensuring the sustainability of the industry
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Thirdly and quite controversial is Ishwar’s view that the Cruise Industry has bullied their way around the region. Many regional commentators argue that the net contribution of the cruise to Caribbean economies is negligible.  They point to what they see as a foreign-based-oligopoly that dominates the ancillary services that support the industry with just local taxi drivers and other transport operators benefitting.  Ishwar believes that cruise has cannibalized the stay-over sector, which is still the regional industry’s bread and butter.  I agree that stay-over visitors provide the taxes, employment, and linkages, but I believe cruise does have an important role in a well-defined destination strategy.

Fourthly, the region needs to do a better job of enforcing more effective planning regulations for the building of tourism plants, especially given the need for environmental sensitivity and sustainability.  The region is already prone to climate change, including sea level rises, destruction of reefs, and more frequent and intense hurricanes.
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To end on an upbeat note, the CTO press release reported that intra-regional traffic grew by three-and-a-half percent over 2010.  But for those OECS countries for which the Caribbean remains the most important market, a 9.8 percent drop in arrivals was noted.   It seems like Reject and Caribbean Airlines’ new ATRs have come at the right time.  To defend its position and grow, the Caribbean region would benefit from the ideas of bright young men like Ishwar Persad.  Ishwar just completed a 6-month lecturing stint at a Tourism College in Zanzibar for VSO and will soon be taking up a one and a half year placement with the new campus of the National College of Tourism in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania.  We wish him all the best.

My name is Derren Joseph, and I love my country, and I love my region.  Despite our current challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope that we will all enjoy a brighter tomorrow.  Please note that the opinions expressed do not reflect any organization’s views with which the writer is affiliated.


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