Aviation central to tourism conference

Issues on airlift, infrastructure and
intra-regional travel were at the forefront of the Caribbean Tourism
Organisation’s Leadership Strategy Conference, held from 8 to 11 October at the
Hilton, Barbados.

Willie Walsh, Chief Executive Officer of
British Airways, gave a keynote address at the outset that pulled no punches.
He spoke of the pressures that the industry was under, particularly with
relation to what the aviation industry considers punitive taxation including
Air Passenger Duty, levied by the United Kingdom. Walsh said that the amount
payable was ten times more than the actual carbon cost of a flight to the
Caribbean. He noted there had been a decrease in passengers from the UK since
the tax was introduced and said that even if people could find the extra money
to pay for more expensive tickets that would be at the expense of tourist
spending in their destination.

“It threatens jobs and opportunities – and
the ability of the islands’ governments to maintain funding levels for the
education, health and welfare programmes they expect to provide for their
citizens,” he said.

Walsh lambasted also the ‘patchwork quilt’
of taxes prevalent in the Caribbean and said that policy makers needed to
consider the impact of what he termed ‘blinkered policies’ on economies and the
environment.

“Aviation is a low-margin industry at the
best of times. If surpluses are swallowed up in taxes, airlines will not only
be unable to invest in cleaner, emissions-reducing aircraft, they will
ultimately go bankrupt,” he said.

In terms of infrastructure Walsh added that
Cayman was currently adequately served by its 767 service and that nations and
islands should be sensible with what they sought to build, because additional
costs from recouping infrastructural developments would further damage travel
options.

Regional travel and security

Intra-regional travel was given an
intriguing boost by the announcement by AirOne’s CEO Ian Burns that the new
low-cost airline would be offering flights starting at $9.99, outside of taxes.

The announcement brought hoots of mirth from some of the assembled delegates,
some of whom noted that in the last 30 years, 30 airlines had failed in the
Caribbean. Nonetheless, Burns outlined the model, based on European low-cost
carriers such as Ryanair, who unbundle all services such as making people pay
for priority check-in, baggage and all refreshments.

“We will charge you for everything,” said
Burns to a lively audience whose scepticism was palpable. AirOne are awaiting
licenses to operate out of Barbados and intend to begin by serving the Eastern
Caribbean.

Security issues were also on the agenda,
with many professionals calling for the establishment of a Caribbean-wide set
of standards to screen passengers through and within the region. It was
acknowledged that rescreening between flights was necessary until such a set of
standards was implemented. Don Fields of Metropolitan Washington Airports
Authority said that the United States was looking at introducing a biometric
outward screening process.

“When I go to Asia, Europe, South America,
I always have to go through passport control when I leave the country,” he
said.

However, Alex Sanguinetti, Director-General
of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said that there was ‘too much
harassment’ in travelling through the region and that the Caribbean had to have
more common sense in immigration and security policies.

Social media and branding

Other subjects discussed at length included
the way that social media had the power to bring together customers and
destinations in a dialogue that had never been previously possible. Jim Brody
of TripAdvisor moderated a discussion which concluded that the human element
was key to public relations and that hotels big and small needed to be present
and active online to both respond to and engage with their customers.

“Social media is not a fad, it’s a
fundamental shift in the way we communicate,” said panellist Richard Tams of
British Airways.

Destination branding must be honest and
distinctive, said Tom Buncle, a top consultant in the field. Credibility was
key and delivering on promises doubly so. He gave examples of generic marketing
campaigns that said little about the actual destinations as they were all
simply beach scenes rather than saying something about the specific island.
Buncle’s ideas about the future included the possibility of space tourism and
other barmy stuff, but in general his presentations were well-observed and
pithy.

Finally, new Caribbean Tourism Organisation
Chairman Ricky Skerritt laid out three key elements of strategy that would be
implemented.

It was imperative, he said, to deliver
world-class service, to continue to resist stringent taxes and to properly
develop an allied marketing strategy. He said that there had been enough talk
and priority was now for action.

“The time is right; the recession has
taught that we can do more if we do it together,” he concluded, adding that the
conference had been a great success and that tentative plans were in place to
do it again in 2011.

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Ricky Skerritt

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