David Jessop | The value of the genuine Caribbean
In an age when most in the business of tourism are seeking to increase their income by selling authenticity to millennials and baby-boomers, it is perhaps puzzling that another rapidly growing industry segment now wants to deliver just the opposite.
Type the words 'private islands' into a search engine and it is immediately evident that this element of the industry reflects a new and rapidly growing phenomenon.
To be clear, this is not about elite destinations like Richard Branson's Necker Island sadly now all but destroyed by Hurricane Irma, about which, more later or the exclusive and upscale small resorts that exist, for example, in the Grenadines, but about a new form of mass market Caribbean tourism that is being developed by the cruise companies.
The concept involves large cruise lines such as Norwegian, Disney or Royal Caribbean buying or leasing small islands in locations close to their home ports, and developing facilities on them which they control.
For the most part, these locations have deepwater berthing facilities that enable the lines to bring some of their largest ships directly onshore. This enables them, quite literally, to transfer the many thousands of passengers each ship carries, to beaches which have a physically adjacent mix of amenities and attractions in a way that most Caribbean destinations do not.
The effect is that a significant part of the visitor market that wants to travel to the Caribbean is coming to see these private islands, like the cruise ships on which they travel, as a safe, relatively upmarket substitute for what one might describe as the real Caribbean.
So far, it seems that with two exceptions all such facilities are in The Bahamas and offer everything from swimming pools to spas and bars, water sports and live music, and even minor injuries clinics in order to provide a 'safe' environment.
From the cruise companies' perspective, not only do such facilities offer a controlled version of the Caribbean for the nervous, often older middle-market traveller who wants, as it were, to see the Caribbean 'in safety', but the opportunity to retain their expenditure.
While the cost of investing in developing small forgotten islands in The Bahamas, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere is substantial, the cruise companies believe they have found a way of delivering hundreds of thousands of their passengers to Caribbean locations, avoiding the grittiness or worse conditions that some visitors have experienced onshore. Their objective, they say, is to develop facilities, attraction and even engineer beaches and the environment in a manner that ensures their clients experience the white sand and waving palm-tree paradise they have imagined.
Recent reports in the travel trade press suggest that the concept is expanding with Carnival, for example, looking not just at the Bahamas, but at Honduras as well.
For the companies that stand to significantly increase that their profits from this approach, the private island concept - the control they can exercise over the visitor experience and passenger security in a potentially hostile world is what matters.
Surprisingly, this category of cruising is in great demand. Surveys suggest that it is highly popular, indicating that many travellers may be less interested in where they are going and more desirous of a safe experience in a tropical climate that feels Caribbean but offers little in the way of authenticity.
Employment and passenger taxes apart, how this can be of any long-term value to the Caribbean is a mystery. Worse, it ignores tourism's ability to create relationships and understanding through people-to-people contact, let alone the experience and sense of wonder and adventure that travel provides.
Cruise ships offer an important way for those less travelled to see and experience regions like the Caribbean and then, hopefully, to return to stay longer. However, if the companies concerned are now intent on creating their own sanitised pastiche of Caribbean reality, governments and the rest of the industry need to think long and hard about the implications.
This is particularly the case following the passage of Hurricane Irma through the Caribbean and the need for populated, authentic islands able to earn as much revenue from tourism as rapidly as possible to support recovery.
Essential economic role
In every Caribbean nation, tourism now plays an essential economic role. Its total economic contribution has been growing year on year, and is forecast by the World Travel and Tourism Council to reach US$73.6 billion, or 15.4 per cent of GDP, by the end of 2025, providing 14.4 per cent of all employment in the region.
As Cuba and the Dominican Republic realised in the late 1980s, tourism can be scaled up rapidly, has almost immediate economic benefits in the form of foreign exchange, broadens the tax base, offers a wide range of employment opportunities, and attracts foreign investors. It can also help finance recovery from a disaster.
Speaking about this in the last few days at the launch of a post-hurricane recovery fund for the industry, Karolin Troubetzkoy, the president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, observed that "tourism is the quickest way to rebound an economy, put people back to work, and generate badly needed tax revenues to support reconstruction".
She stressed the importance of strengthening the resilience of the sector and the industry's aim to have affected areas of the Caribbean ready to receive tourists by the spring and summer seasons of 2018, if not sooner.
"Our nations and territories are dependent on tourism, and they will need help to bounce back," she said.
While it will be some time before the tourism infrastructure in the parts of the region that suffered most from Hurricane Irma the British Virgin Islands, the US Virgin Islands, Barbuda, St Martin/St Maarten, and Cuba's north coast it is an industry that has been shown to be robust.
Better, therefore, that the tourist dollar is spent by cruise passengers in the genuine Caribbean, where the people, their solidarity, and their support at times of hardship demonstrate the qualities that make their nations authentic and truly worth visiting.
- David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council. firstname.lastname@example.org