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Tourists were being lost to more competitive destinations from Cancun to Cuba to China, air access particularly from Europe slowed and the
region's voice in the international marketplace gradually diminished among the notable factors.
Now with peace and war hovering dangerously overhead, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) Jean Holder despite offering "cautious optimism" to its 32-member countries, warns that the road ahead would be long and hard with many external variables over which they have little control.
During the CTO's 25th annual conference in Grand Bahama two weeks ago, Holder painted a gloomy picture of the region's tourism sector.
"A combination of poor global economic performance and a continuing sense of international insecurity have conspired to create an environment completely inimical to travel and tourism and a high price has been paid in loss of profits, loss of jobs, loss of revenue, loss of service, inter alia, by every business and every sub-sector of the industry," he lamented.
Speaking on the conference theme, "Re-inventing Caribbean Tourism" Holder who has a 28-year career in tourism said it was all about putting it right and that a Strategic Plan developed by the CTO will guide the region into taking appropriate action.
The Strategic Plan calls for the re-positioning of the hospitality industry which identifies both priority short-term recovery actions and long-term development measures and addresses the challenges of varying level of tourism development among its member countries.
Among the critical issues it addresses are sustainable development of the tourism industry, investment, air access, airport safety and security, cruise tourism, information management, marketing, human resources development, institutional strengthening and funding.
The plan aims at increasing annual tourist expenditure by at least 5 per cent per annum over the next ten years; increasing stay-over arrivals by at least 1 per cent above the world average growth; increase the conversion of cruise tourists to stay-over tourists; enhance linkages between tourism and other sectors of the economy and increase the level and range of employment opportunities and tourism education and training.
"The strategic plan comes to grip (with) what the industry is about. The industry is about the socio-economic development of the people of the Caribbean. Tourism is simply the instrument through which we are doing this," said Holder.
Bahamas' Prime Minister Perry Christie said while the Caribbean had two rapid-fire summits on tourism last year following 9/11, he's still not convinced that the region fully understands that the reinvention must take place with some sense of urgency.
"I get the feeling that there are a number of people out there who are longing for the good old days of Caribbean tourism. It is clear to me that the conditions that produced those good old days are gone and gone forever," said Christie, himself a former Tourism Minister.
"We must not only reinvent Caribbean tourism, we must reinvent it rapidly," he said.
Christie, who's turning out to be one of the most out-spoken Caribbean leaders, made several suggestions including creating the Caribbean by
collaborating with each other; having a single regional carrier and understanding what the tourism product is all about.
Tourism, he said, is not about the numbers of visitors to an island or the size of the overseas office or advertising campaigns.
"That is 'ego-tourism' which, by and large, has been the hallmark of tourism in our region for years. That form of tourism has more to do with how our efforts make us feel as opposed to how they make our constituents and our visitors feel," said the Bahamian leader who was elected to government office earlier this year.
He said the tourism that needs to be reinvented has to be about satisfying and growing the wealth of the people, ensuring profitability for those who invest in the industry and satisfying visitors who recommend their experiences to their friends and relatives.
"All the Caribbean needs is the world's best access, the world's best complete vacation experiences and the world's best egress. We must re-invent how we get people to, through and out of our countries and we must deliver complete experiences that make them say 'wow'."
Deputy Secretary General of the CTO, Karen Ford-Warner said Caribbean tourism professionals need to understand how the region fits into the new global environment in order to find innovative ways to deal with the transformation that is taking place.
"We cannot continue to do business as we have in the past and expect to reap the successes or maintain and improve our position because we are not operating in the same environment," she said.
Giving an example, she said the use of technology is critically important globally and the tourism industry is very ripe for this sort of technological advance.
Although the Caribbean traditionally has been a sun, sea and sand destination, Ford-Warner said the changes that were taking place in the global environment required that Caribbean tourism officials concentrate on expanding and enhancing the tourism product offerings to include the natural environment, the rich heritage and the involvement of communities.
Bahamas' Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe is convinced that the diversified product of the Caribbean is unmatched anywhere in the world.
"Walking the rain forest of Puerto Rico, rafting on the River Dunn in Jamaica, gyrating in Trinidad to the regional sounds of soca and rushing to the pulsating beat of Junkanoo on Boxing Day morning in the Bahamas. This is who we are. We are the Caribbean. Our challenge is to capture who are we and afford the world this unique Caribbean experience," he said.
Although tourism is on the decline in almost all Caribbean destinations, there are some success stories such as in Bermuda and Barbados. Bermuda created the African Diaspora tour, which not only celebrates their history but also gives African-Americans -- a major niche market still untapped by the Caribbean -- another reason to visit.
Barbados, through a private/public sector initiative has been attracting thousands of visitors to the 166 sq-mile island through the 'Best of Barbados' programme which offers a 35 per cent discount, with a maximum of US$200 credit per person towards airfare, discounts on lodgings, meals and activities at 40 participating properties.
Before the programme was introduced, the island's tourism was up by 4.4 per cent between January and June. In July, a month after the programme was introduced, the island recorded a significant 22.2 per cent increase in US visitor arrivals over the same period in 2001.
In August, US visitors increased by 22.7 per cent, followed by a whopping 56.7 per cent increase in September over the same periods respectively last year.
"Factoring out the September 11 tragedy, we were still 22 per cent up in September 2002 compared to September 2000, the year before the tragedy," said Oliver Jordan, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Barbados Tourism Authority.