David Jessop | A new regional context for tourism
A few days ago, Karolin Troubetzkoy, the president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), spoke to the media about some of the challenges that she believes now face the tourism sector in the region, the industry that in recent years has become the single largest contributor to Caribbean economic growth.
Her comments, which identified a number of issues that the industry in the Caribbean faces, were intended to preview the September 30 to October 2 Caribbean Hospitality Industry Exchange Forum in Puerto Rico, which she hopes will set the scene for the industry to "open (its) eyes to the bigger picture".
First on her list was the huge growth in travel to Cuba, which approximately 2.1 million travellers visited during the first six months of 2016, an 11.7 per cent increase over the same period in 2015. While CHTA is developing a closer working relationship with the Cuban industry, there were questions, she said, about the likely effect that such growth will have on the rest of the region and how best the industry might respond to the imminent start of scheduled air services from US cities.
Another major challenge she identified was the need for hoteliers in the region to come to terms with the rise of disruptive technologies, like Airbnb, that are taking market share away from the properties in the region. There had been, she said, a change in consumer thinking, requiring the traditional industry to find creative ways to make the sharing economy work to its advantage.
She also spoke about other areas that she hoped the tourism sector would give thought to: the effects of the Zika virus on travel; the United Kingdom decision to leave the European Union; the increased risks posed by global terrorism; high airfares; rising hotel operating costs, and ineffective marketing efforts by some in the industry.
However, behind her focus on specifics is the belief that there needs to be a fresh regional perspective on tourism.
In remarks which aim to place the Caribbean industry firmly in a new regional context, she told me: "If ever there was a time to stop recounting past failures and create a fresh and new dynamic to safeguard and sustainably grow our Caribbean tourism industry for generations to come, it is now. Hoteliers, tourism-related businesses and governments throughout the region can no longer afford to operate independently nor look at tourism in isolation of the entire socio-economic landscape."
Her comments suggest forward thinking, the emergence of a much clearer public voice for CHTA's members in its dialogue with governments and multilateral institutions, and greater clarity about more closely integrating tourism into the fabric of the region.
Mrs Troubetzkoy, who with her husband owns and runs Jade Mountain in St Lucia, recognises, however, that while the industry believes that tourism is everyone's business, this message has not yet translated sufficiently into action. There is a need, she says, for business and government to work towards common interests.
What seems to be little realised beyond the industry is that the structure of tourism in the Caribbean has changed significantly over the last few years, requiring a new understanding across the region of how best to address industry concerns and ensure its long-term role in generating regional economic prosperity.
In the last decade, the industry has fragmented, so that today it consists of large and small indigenous operators; increasing numbers of externally owned or managed chain hotels that for the most part are less interested in engaging in issues of common concern; and a growing number of completely new interests from China, Singapore and other parts of the world building mega hotels, led sometimes not by industry considerations, but, for example, the related investment value of citizenship by investment programmes.
There are also other, more long-standing issues that require better understanding and attention according to Frank Comito, the life-long industry and association professional who took over as CHTA's director general in 2015. These are the cost and ease of airlift, high operating costs and taxes, the lack of strong regional and destination marketing, environmental degradation, and the personal development of those who work in the industry.
IMPACT ON GOVERNMENT
He emphasises that there needs to be a greater understanding in the region and externally of what tourism now does and can do for governments and their people, observing that the industry's development offers the fastest way for governments to generate jobs, tax revenue and create new business opportunities.
The challenge, he says, is to have sufficient resources and commitment, particularly from the region's private sector, to help manage the necessary change process, stressing the need for the organisation to see the engagement of more of the larger operators and brands in the sector, particularly from the all-inclusive resorts, in the process of affecting change.
While he is, he says, heartened by the interest now being shown by public and private-sector leaders when it comes to addressing tourism-related issues, and is encouraged by recent discussions with regional and international multilateral organisations, he remains cautious, hoping that such exchanges will in fact translate into action.
Few would argue that tourism can be the panacea for all of the economic problems facing the Caribbean, but over the last two decades the industry in the region has continued to develop in ways that have demonstrated its ability to spread benefit widely, so that many once agriculture-dependent economies now look to tourism for GDP growth, employment, foreign exchange earnings and government revenue.
CHTA and its membership's willingness to look outwards, engage in advocacy, and recognise the need for the industry to be more closely integrated into the region's overall development is to be welcomed. As one of the few truly representative, pan-Caribbean private-sector bodies, it needs to be more closely engaged by governments and regional institutions in dialogue, and its objectives and programmes better supported by multilateral institutions and developmental bodies.
- David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.