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This time last year, predictions of the fall-off in visitor arrivals for the winter season were as high as 20-30 per cent. But there was a hope that world and Caribbean tourism would quickly re-bound after the initial shock effects of the attacks had worn off.
The report by CTO Secretary General Jean Holder shows that winter 2002 arrivals were actually 10.4 per cent down from the previous year. But recovery has been slower than in the past. Stock market falls, recession, and the prospect of a US-Iraqi war have all deterred travellers. Then there was the Bali bombing.
One idea mooted following 9/11 was that the Caribbean could be marketed in Europe as a "safe" alternative to a US vacation. But the fall-off in arrivals was much higher for Europeans (-15.8 per cent) compared to Canadians (- 10.4 per cent) and Americans (- 6.1 per cent). In times of insecurity, people don't wish to travel far from home.
The prospects for the success of the CTO-sponsored advertising campaign - ‘Life Needs the Caribbean’ are therefore uncertain. For the medium term the CTO has prepared a Regional Strategic Plan for Caribbean tourism, to be financed by a proposed Sustainable Tourism Development Fund. How the Fund will be financed, especially as between governments and the private sector, is to be the subject of further study.
A critical issue is airline cooperation in the region. The Conference heard an eloquent and impassioned plea for this from Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie, who bemoaned the fact that a single regional airline had been discussed at CARICOM Summits at least 10 years ago, but nothing had happened.
In 1993, a study by the CTO and the Caribbean Association of Industry and Commerce (CAIC) estimated potential savings of $65 million a year from inter-airline cooperation in the Miami hub. Together with the Association of Caribbean States, meetings of airline CEOs were organised.
But the airlines, including some based in Central America, were lukewarm. Freshly privatised, each preferred to pursue its own business agenda and its own alliances with foreign carriers.
The acute financial difficulties now being experienced by regional carriers have given governments new leverage over regional air transport. The Government of Trinidad and Tobago has conditioned its financial assistance to BWIA on its studying the feasibility of joining with Air Jamaica in forming a single regional airline. Air Jamaica is talking cooperation, but not an outright merger. LIAT has already forged an alliance with BWIA. And Prime Minister Christie has committed Bahamas Air to regional cooperation.
A single Caribbean airline or airline alliance could develop links with the Central American and other regional carriers as part of the Sustainable Tourism Zone of the Greater Caribbean. Approval of the ACS Agreement on a Common Air Transport Policy is a necessary step to providing the legal framework for such alliances.
A major element in the reinvention of Caribbean tourism is the reinvention of regional air transport. The ball is in the court of the regional airlines, and in that of the governments to which they are turning for financial support.
Professor Norman Girvan is Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States. The views expressed are not necessarily the official views of the ACS.