The way forward for Caribbean tourism


One of the most fascinating aspects of the business we’re in – the tourism industry, is the fact that interwoven into its very fabric are cultural elements – seen and unseen – which are integral to the attractiveness and enjoyment of the product we package and sell. And those elements are to be found throughout the length and breadth of the Caribbean – this fascinating region of 40 million people with a rich cultural and historical diversity, four main language groups, and a potpourri of dialects.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimates that over 927 million people traveled internationally last year. Of that number the Caribbean Tourism Organization says 23 million traveled to our region by air. In fact, excluding cruise activity, the Caribbean is second to Europe in stay-over visitor penetration density; i.e., visitor arrivals as a percentage of population. We would easily have the highest visitor penetration density when another 18 million cruise arrivals are added.

The WTTC, The World Travel & Tourism Council, estimates that in 2009, travel and tourism will have generated 220 million direct and indirect jobs; one in every 13 jobs in the world. To give it a Caribbean perspective, this industry employs 2.5 million of us and injects over US$25 billion a year in foreign exchange into our regional economies. Tourism’s contribution to GDP in the Caribbean ranges from 15 percent to over 70 percent among the 33 countries of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. When foreign exchange earnings and contribution to the economy are taken into account, the most tourism dependent region of the world is the Caribbean. So for the whole world, tourism is big business; for the Caribbean, there is little doubt that tourism is THE business.

The past year and a half has been a true test for the tourism business and especially for the world’s most tourism-dependent region. We’ve seen the disposable income of our best customers declining and with it their ability to maintain a certain lifestyle. As a region we have tackled all the right things, although we haven’t necessarily always done it the right way.

There will come a time when the Caribbean is so focused on mining the databases of our current visitors that we will let no one arrive and leave our shores unless we know enough about them – at least to do a profile of who they are. Through easily available techniques we can find out what their spending habits are and what their media consumption habits are, so that we can reach them in the right environment and with appropriate messaging. By understanding how our visitors consume our products we can constantly improve the quality of their experience. By profiling their lifestyles we can create the right incentives for them to keep coming back, and to reward them for recommending our destinations. We have the databases; we know where to find these clusters of customers. In fact, we’ve begun to call them “clustomers.” We would all save precious dollars by understanding that it is infinitely more cost-effective to secure more business from current customers, than to incur the increased costs of sourcing new visitors each time.

There will come a time when repeat visitors in the highest categories, arriving in the Caribbean, get to go on the special Immigration line that’s normally designated for residents and CARICOM nationals. They should get to use some type of “privileged guest card” that guarantees them the best tables in our restaurants and accommodation upgrades wherever practical, because we realize that to truly value our best visitors is to guarantee that word of mouth and TripAdvisor will work to our best advantage.

And there will come a time when properly managing our customer relationships is so ingrained in our thinking that we will never think of hosting tourism events in major cities around the world – as we do now – without inviting our best customers who live in those cities; if we do it right we will know how to find them, and we will encourage them to bring prospective visitors whom they are seeking to impress. And all this, in our view, can be part of a well-structured, properly funded, integrated marketing campaign that has so far – quite sadly – eluded the Caribbean at a time when we need it the most.

Because the hospitality industry is everybody’s business, my point in all of this is that there is absolutely no value in sitting back and pointing the finger at governments to fix everything in our lives. Public/private sector partnerships often engender a level of creativity and corporate social responsibility that delivers results. That’s the direction in which we must be heading.

There will come a time when tourism planners and policy makers in the Caribbean have access to such reliable economic impact data – through tourism satellite account systems or other viable models – that decisions can be confidently made on the basis of solid information on the true cost of acquiring a visitor by market/by segment, his net value to the destination, and the number of jobs directly affected by upticks or downturns in tourism performance in any given month. There will come a time when tourism training and education are so woven into the fabric of our strategies for sustaining and improving the performance of this industry that there will be no man, woman or child in the Caribbean who is not properly aware of his or her role in the business that feeds us.

We at the Caribbean Tourism Organization are proud of the role our own CTO Foundation continues to play in regional training at all levels, and in providing scholarships to Caribbean nationals who are pursuing tourism studies. To date the amount paid out by the CTO Foundation, through the generosity of corporate sponsors and a combination of herculean efforts, has exceeded BDS$1.3 million and has yielded impressive results. Some of the recipients of those CTO Foundation scholarships – Dr. Sherma Roberts, Dr. Marcella Daye, Dr. Acolla Lewis-Cameron and Dr. Leslie-Ann Jordan-Miller are here this week.

But we recognize the need to do more at every level. For instance, it is our intention to learn as much as we can about the necessary steps involved in integrating tourism subjects into the curricula of secondary and perhaps also primary schools across the Caribbean and to pursue that goal with vigor. Not because we want to make a tourism practitioner out of every Caribbean citizen, but because the role of tourism in poverty alleviation and the importance of hospitality as a way of life can no longer continue to be misunderstood.

There will come a time when the Caribbean – which is generally not particularly resource-rich but certainly resourceful – will be able to stage a series of massive concerts in major cities across the globe to raise excitement, generate funds, and inspire travel to our region. Similar events have been held in support of causes in various countries over the years and have raised huge amounts of awareness. We are certain that with the Caribbean’s wealth of famous talent the same can be achieved by us through a series of Celebrate Caribbean concerts in major markets.