The Caribbean’s tourism sector gathered en masse at a special conference in St. Kitts for the annual State of the Industry conference from 10 to 12 October. During public and private meetings, issues du jour were discussed and a new chairman of the organisation elected for a two-year stint as mandated by the body’s constitution.
The new incumbent of the role is Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who serves as commissioner of tourism in the United States Virgin Islands. Nicholson-Doty’s compatriot and colleague, non-voting Congressman Donna Christian Christensen, spoke at the conference and noted that there were many challenges to be faced for the region.
These included economic turbulence in the United States and Europe; airline costs, bankruptcies, contract disputes and changing routes; the cost of utilities and the need to find alternative energy sources. On the latter point, Christian Christensen said that it was ‘the most important issue’ in her campaign at home for individuals, families, small and large businesses and the transportation industry, which she said was ‘integral to tourism’.
“For us, as for all of you – our neighbours, our long term reliance on fossil fuel is the proverbial albatross on the neck of our economic development advancement,” she told delegates.
Other challenges were crime issues, degradation of natural resources and human resource issues.
There were also ‘macro’ issues, which were intimately inter-related, she noted.
“One – how do we redefine, redesign, update, and upgrade our tourism products to meet a changing and expanding marketplace? Two – how do we ensure that our product is one that is sustainable in the broader sense of the term, and Three – how do we now begin the adaptation necessary to address the impact of climate change?”
Christian Christensen said that these challenges could not be set apart in silos but must be an integral part of government policy, planning and operations across the board.
“Tourism is vital to our governments’ economic health and for it to survive and continue to feed government needs it needs governments’ full attention and a holistic approach,” she concluded.
Outgoing chairman Ricky Skerritt of St. Kitts and Nevis said that the organisation had ‘created a sound platform for strategic change’ during his tenure.
“Two years ago, there was an urgent need to change the perception by several Caribbean Tourism Organisation members that our Caribbean brand marketing strategy in North America and Europe was not providing an adequate return on our investment. Consequently, getting member countries to contribute to the [organisation’s] marketing fund has been and continues to be a major challenge.
“At the same time, travel consumer demands and expectations have changed dramatically, aided and empowered by the rapid rise of social media, with the top travel priority becoming the desire by guests to enjoy greater value for the same, or even less, money. Meanwhile, cash-strapped governments on both sides of the Atlantic began looking more to the travel and tourism sector as a way to balance their debt-ridden budgets,” said Skerritt.
International aviation was a source of taxation revenue for governments, with the much-derided Airline Passenger Duty in the UK continuing to prejudice travel to the Caribbean as well as setting ticket-related taxes to ‘an unprecedented high.’
“[This raises] nearly 3 billion Pounds annually for the British Government to use on domestic programmes, which have nothing to do with aviation. In [the organisation], we believe that aviation tariffs should be kept at a minimum.
“It is our strong opinion that tariffs should facilitate the delivery of proper security and better service at airports and enhance travel-related developments to result in more people travelling, more cargo, and better value for the traveller,” said Skerritt.
But despite pressure from tourism bodies, regional representatives and politicians, the UK Chancellor George Osbourne refused to adjust the ‘discriminatory’ tax structure. The Caribbean is in the highest band of duty despite being closer than some United States destinations because the tax is calculated by distance between London and the capital of the destination in question, in this case Washington, which puts the States closer to the UK.
Mr. Skerritt also talked of fuel costs, the cruise industry and US Federal taxes as being issues and he reiterated that intra-Caribbean travel must be made cheaper and easier.
Marketing the region
Secretary-General Hugh Riley added that the Caribbean Tourism Development Company was an initiative which blended public and private partnerships in order to pool talent and resources and ‘the blend of product and policy to create a business-focused, marketing entity that boasts the DNA of a region with a history of producing champions.’
“[D]espite the obvious challenges, the company has managed to achieve an important goal, which a few years ago, many thought was unachievable: that is, the partnership of the public and private sector of the Caribbean’s tourism industry; a commitment to work hand in hand for the greater good,” said Riley.
The new vision of the Caribbean Tourism Organization was approved by the board of directors, council of ministers and commissioners of tourism at meetings during the conference. It was one of the outcomes of a review of the organisation conducted recently by the corporate strategy consulting group, McKinney Rogers.
The vision is: “To position the Caribbean as the most desirable, year round, warm weather destination by 2017”.
The next State of the Industry conference will be held in Martinique in 2013.