Recognising that tourism matters
When CARICOM heads of government met in Barbados at the start of the month, their proceedings were dominated by a discussion of Venezuela's unjustified claim to much of Guyana's coastline and most of its exclusive economic zone and to the marine jurisdictions of a number of other Caribbean member states.
The communiquÈ outlining what was agreed can be found on CARICOM's website, where those with the patience to read its 11 or so pages will see important declarations on Guyana and on climate change. They will also see text on what was agreed on CARICOM's concerns about the now well-advanced regularisation of the status of undocumented migrants in the Dominican Republic; Caribbean heads' strong objection to the European Union incorrectly naming most of their nations as non-cooperating states on tax matters and much about the development of strategies in forthcoming major policy-setting global conferences.
What the communiquÈ does not refer to, however, are the interesting remarks made by the Bahamas prime minister, Perry Christie, when he formally handed over to Barbados the pro tempore chair of the regional organisation.
Unusually, perhaps uniquely, Christie dedicated one-third of what he said to fellow heads to the subject of tourism, its importance to the region, and the need for new initiatives in light of the challenge that improved relations between the US and Cuba pose to the region's most significant industry.
In what may be the first statement of its kind from an incoming or outgoing CARICOM chairman, the Bahamas prime minister called for CARICOM heads to give greater consideration in their meetings to the industry and its concerns.
In doing so, he hinted that for some, the industry may be a topic to be avoided despite its huge economic significance. He noted that although to some in the region tourism "may be redolent of part of Caribbean history that we would want to keep barricaded", it was for most, the largest earner of foreign exchange, the largest employer, and the sector that absorbs the broadest range of skills.
The Bahamas prime minister said that unless CARICOM heads of government signalled to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) that tourism is very important to the region's collective good, "they will take their cues from the rarity of discussions about tourism at our CARICOM meetings as the indicator of our true beliefs".
"For all of our countries," he continued, "tourism is the one sector for which there is no such thing as a jobless recovery. The very nature of tourism requires more people to be hired with increasing numbers of visitors. If unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is the scourge of our times, there appears to be no better economic sector for us to embrace in leading us closer to the promises that we have made to our lands.
"I am convinced that tourism, the largest part of our collective economies, and, in most cases, the largest part of our individual economies, deserves much more attention at our regional meetings," he said. "Further, I am persuaded that tourism development and all that it entails is the fastest path to reducing unemployment in our region and the fastest path to reducing the debt burdens that terrify upcoming generations," Christie observed.
Interestingly, he linked his remarks to CARICOM's principled position on the ending of the US trade embargo on Cuba. "I have to tell you that after reading the paper produced by the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) on the likely impact on Caribbean tourism of the reopening of Cuba to travel for United States citizens, I hear their appeal for us to act as a group to take full advantage of the opportunity to our collective benefit," Christie told his fellow Caribbean leaders.
His reference was to a far-reaching paper the private sector organisation has produced on the implications of change in Cuba for Caribbean tourism, which it had linked to the need to develop a Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative similar to the trade in goods related to US Caribbean Basin Initiative that was legislated in 1983.
The Bahamas prime minister also challenged regional orthodoxy on tourism taxation by suggesting that the region needed to take action to explore whether the "present high taxes" on airline tickets "have the effect of reducing travel rather than increasing it". In doing so, he suggested that the region examine the likely effects of a reduction in ticket taxes and the possible initiation of a related bilateral discussion with the US and Canada on tourism taxes.
The fact that Christie has tourism troubles of his own should not diminish the importance of his message.
As is well known, in the last few weeks, the Bahamas has been suffering as a consequence of a filing for bankruptcy in the US by the resort owners of Baha Mar, the Chinese-built mega-resort. It has also been the case that the Bahamas, unlike any other regional destination, appears to have been the first to be affected negatively by the desire of many US citizens to travel to Cuba.
What The Bahamas prime minister is saying is that Caribbean heads ought to take seriously the CTO and CHTA's concerns, should determine how best to respond to a likely dramatic change in the pattern of arrivals from the US in the Northern Caribbean as US travel restrictions on Cuba ease, and to develop initiatives of the kind the professionals in tourism and others recommend.
There is no shortage of ideas. For example, one response to increased Cuban competition was recently suggested by Jamaica's opposition Leader Andrew Holness: a focus on multi-centre tourism in the Northern Caribbean with governments initiating exchanges on quality airlift linking Montego Bay, Havana, Nassau, and Cayman and the free movement of visitors based on a single regional visa.
But beyond this, and of strategic significance, CHTA and CTO are suggesting a step change in regional thinking about future tourism from North America.
The trade negotiations with Canada are at a dead end. With the Economic Partnership Agreement with Europe, the greatest source of new investment, dead in the water, employment and comparative advantage for the region is in tourism. This suggests that it is time for tourism to become front and centre in CARICOM's thinking about future regional growth, and as Christie suggests, the subject of a detailed and well-prepared discussion when Caribbean heads of government next meet.
n David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com.