The annual Caribbean Marketplace convention took place at Atlantis, Bahamas and showed a much more positive vibe than previous recent conferences albeit some perennial thorns were still hurting the region. Wholesalers mingled with destinations as the Caribbean tourism industry concentrated on how best to position itself for the future.
High on the list of discussion points was the controversial air passenger duty, a tax levied by the United Kingdom on long and short haul air travel.
President of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, Josef Forstmayr, raged against the duty’s high levels, calling them ‘incredibly expensive’ and noting that even the lowest economy service attracted a charge of £75 per airline ticket, rising to £81 in April, 2012.
Forstmayr said that his private sector association and the public sector Caribbean Tourism Association had presented the British government with a 50-page report proposing a new system which postulated that increasing the short-haul duty by £2 would bring in the same amount of revenue. But that had been rejected, he said, as the treasury of the UK preferred to retain the current banding.
The Caribbean is in the highest tax band because the distance between London and any capital city is higher than that between London and Washington. However, many West Coast destinations are considerably further than this.
Alec Sanguinetti, director-general of the association, wondered whether the tax contravened the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services. He said that since the introduction of the tax in 2007, Caribbean arrivals had dropped by 270,000. Because the European visitor stays for longer than tourists from closer source markets, the revenue loss was greater.
Forstmayr said that the UK’s development funding programmes were insignificant compared to the flow of money through tourism. The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association has drafted a resolution regarding the subject which states that there is a ‘proven and ongoing negative economic impact’ and calls on the governments of the Caribbean to ‘make clear that the UK APD banding structure contravenes the spirit of the EU Cariforum Economic Partnership Agreement.’
Better news was presented by Smith Travel Research, which noted that in year on year comparisons the Caribbean reported increase in three key performance metrics in 2011 compared to 2010.
It said that occupancy region-wide had increased to 61.8 per cent, a rise of 2.6 per cent; average daily rate was also up by 2.6 per cent to US$167.54; revenue per available room increased by 5.2 per cent to an average of US$103.57. These were the highest figures reported since 2009. Room stock also increased with three new properties opening, adding a total of 421 rooms. This corresponded to a 0.9 per cent increase whilst demand rose by 3.5 per cent.
These figures were welcomed by Cayman Islands Department of Tourism representatives and Acting Director of Tourism, Shomari Scott, said that in discussions with the destination’s wholesalers the reports had been that consumer confidence was returning. This was reflected in part by the widening out of the booking window, which had become very short during the financial crisis as potential visitors held on in the hope of getting last-minute deals.
However, an aggressive marketing policy over the last three years was now bearing fruit and it looked as if group business was also strengthening. All this enabled Cayman to take a wider overview and analyse which months would need additional assistance. Mr. Scott said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ and reiterated the tourism department’s commitment to continuing to be innovative and grow numbers. Planned new routes to Panama and Dallas on Cayman Airways will help grow the Latin American and United States markets, in the same way that the introduction of WestJet services allied to the extant Air Canada route had bolstered Canadian visitation significantly.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Cayman hub – and conference hosts – the Bahamas were prominent in their visibility. Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Minister of Tourism, said that the archipelago was to unveil inter-island connectivity which divided the Bahamas into 16 distinct groups of islands. The differences in topography, culture and feel of these groups meant that the Bahamas itself was a multi-island destination comparable to the Caribbean region. One thing that had significantly assisted in tourism was a public-private scheme called Companion Fly Free. This had led to the booking of more than 500,000 room nights as a result, he told delegates.
Robert Sands of Baha Mar encountered a few raised eyebrows when he insisted that there was ‘no Chinese equity’ in the $3.5 billion tourism development. Rather, the money was a loan and the construction company was China State. The enormous Atlantis development had also been in the news with reports of financial troubles but George Markantonis, president and managing director of management company Kerzner, put this down to high-level negotiations of the underlying asset and said it was ‘territorial disputing’. The actual day to day management of Atlantis was not affected, he told journalists.
Worldwide representatives of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism were at the convention alongside several members of the destination’s hospitality industry. The annual convention brings together wholesalers, private and public sector, media and other stakeholders. In future years, said Forstmayr, the convention would be known as Caribbean Travel Marketplace, in order that it be clear that it was a conference about that industry.