By Ian Francis
The Caribbean Hotel Tourism Association (CHTA) recently assembled in the Nassau ambience of comfort and pomp that gave the weak-kneed participants some renewed energy to cough up new dreams and imagination of a tourism future in the Caribbean region.
Ian Francis resides in Toronto and is a frequent contributor on Caribbean affairs. He is a former Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Grenada and can be reached at email@example.com
As the participants dreamed, yawned and gathered their empty thoughts on the conference table, there was indeed a sudden resolution that suddenly suggested the holding of a regional summit on tourism in the next six months. My initial reaction to this resolution was first to confirm the necessary resources.
The Tuesday, January 22, 2013, online publication of AC 360 Caribbean News carried a headline under the caption "Caribbean Leaders Urged To Hold Regional Summit on Tourism". Having confirmed that the ridiculous suggestion came from an authenticated source, I was inspired to delve further into the rationale that prompted such a dumb suggestion.
The resolution urged Caribbean leaders to consider with industry leaders all major aspects of tourism, including airlift, travel facilitation, marketing, visitor security, human resource development, the environment and new ways to encourage economic growth through a common approach to the problems facing the industry.
As I commenced scrutiny of the above resolution, my attention was immediately drawn to another article, which appeared in the Jamaica Gleaner of Tuesday, January 22, 2013, written by Janet Silvera under the caption "Crime could cripple regional tourism, says Bahamas PM.”
Prime Minister Christie's prediction was highlighted at a moment when he addressed the opening ceremony of the Caribbean Travel Marketplace at the Atlantis on Paradise Island in The Bahamas. Christie expressed grave concern about the escalation in criminal violence, robbery and theft within the respective jurisdictions of the region.
The message from the above two articles seems to confirm that a tourism crisis exists in the Caribbean Commonwealth and help is urgently needed. The crisis has been known for a very long time and many attempts made to resolve it but very little success was achieved. As a result, the local tourist industries in respective Caribbean nations were able to extract lengthy concessions from governments.
While these concessions were awarded with little thought about the potential impact on the broader population, families and other affected persons continued to feel the wrath of lay-offs, a decline in sustainable tourism employment opportunities and additional woes to small farmers.
As the apparent tourism crisis looms throughout the region, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and their associates all seem to be embedded with the convinced feeling that a regional summit of leaders might be able to bring some form of comfort and resolution. In my view, I cannot endorse or support the suggested action. It is weak, visionless and once again demonstrates the weakness and illogical thinking of those who claim to be the regional tourism stakeholders.
The CHTA resolution becomes more interesting for two reasons. The decline of the industry apparently started in 2006 and Caribbean leaders were notified through the Georgetown-based CARICOM Secretariat. Since then, the CARICOM and OECS Standing Committee of Ministers on Tourism, as well as other tourism stakeholders throughout the region have consistently exchanged ideas and information about the crisis.
Caribbean tourism stakeholders must understand and accept the reality that the global economic situation is also having a major impact on many of the regional governments that they look too in bringing about a solution to the crisis. Many of our regional governments are faced with declining revenues and a growing decrease in bilateral development assistance through grants and contributions.
There is no doubt that the new trends and growing diversity in tourism is having a tremendous impact on the Caribbean market. While the Caribbean tourism market was previously established and designed by our colonial masters on the basis of white long sand beaches and an ingrained colonial mentality as to who was entitled to a vacation, times have changed.
Those travelling from Europe and North America now have many choices in affordability and access to much better long sand beaches to what our colonial masters showcased. Caribbean tourism stakeholders must understand that there is game change. Summits and other imaginary thoughts about solving the region's current tourism problems are unlikely to fly. Caribbean tourism stakeholders must understand that affordability plays a critical role in the changed game; the socio-economic status of travellers; travel and access to reliable transportation.
On a final note, there are so many outstanding issues pertaining to tourism rejuvenation and enhancement in the region. If stakeholders are seriously interested the current crisis, it is very doubtful whether jazzy websites and sharing of tears about the industry's collapse will successfully address the game change in the industry.
As challenges continue in the industry, there are several factors that must be taken into consideration. These factors are very important as the issue is not only about hoteliers experiencing less foreign income or governments collecting fewer taxes. While these two issues should not be over looked, we also need to take cognizance of the large amount of foreign exchange that goes out in foreign imports by the tourism industry. Recent industry analysts have indicated that at least 60 percent of the collected tourist dollar goes out of the local economy.
In addition, we must not ignore the hardship and suffering that are being brought on to families when closures, lay-off and sector ills become necessary. There are many other casualties such as the unions, transportation sector, arts and craft and others. Therefore, the industry is an important one and this is why there should be broad based engagement. The industry is not all about hoteliers and government.
The Caribbean tourism sector need to do less bawling and concentrate on new marketing strategies; integration of the agricultural industry into tourism; product rebranding and training of personnel to deliver the new brands.
There is much more required than a regional summit. It is not likely to bring resolution to the crisis except increase recycling.