David Jessop | The new dimensions of tourism
In a week in which Caribbean tourism leaders have been meeting in New York to build on the strong growth that much of the industry is now experiencing, it may seem perverse to be writing about the sustainability of Caribbean tourism.
However, there is growing evidence that fundamental structural changes taking place globally in the industry are likely to raise new questions about the social and economic value tourism brings.
Tourism is increasingly a price-based commodity, benefiting mainly those who own its supply: the hotels, the airlines and cruise ships, and the industry's multifaceted marketing operations.
The commercial opportunity that economic globalisation offers is leading rapidly to consolidation, resulting in an industry dominated by a very few powerful brands, and the homogenisation of the product within specific price categories.
The consequence is that before long what is on offer will become hard to differentiate with the owners of the 'hardware' offering similar experiences in all warm-water destinations whether they be in the Maldives, Fiji, Barbados or the Dominican Republic.
This suggests that unless the Caribbean - the owner of the 'software,' for want of a better description - can successfully differentiate itself, it will find it increasingly difficult to grow the value, own or retain its share of the global market.
Indispensable economic force
By common, if sometimes grudging consent, tourism has in recent years become the most significant Caribbean-wide economic activity. It is now an indispensable economic force, generating taxes, foreign exchange, and employment.
It has the proven ability to turn Caribbean economies around rapidly. Its contribution to Caribbean GDP is substantial. Figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council for 2017 indicate that the industry's total contribution was US$57.1 billion (15.2 per cent of GDP), is forecast to rise by 3.3 per cent in 2018. It now provides 13.8 per cent of total employment (2.5 million jobs) and US$7.1 billion or 13 per cent of total investment.
Up to now the response of governments to capturing value has largely been to stimulate the supply side of the industry, and by extension the number of visitor arrivals. This has involved encouraging ever larger foreign investments in up-scale resorts - Baha Mar in the Bahamas is a good example - incentivising new airlift to open new source markets, finding new ways to encourage cruise ships calls, and through the provision of extensive marketing support. It is an approach governments have been able to justify because it enables them to tax an ever-larger number of arriving visitors.
Unfortunately, it is a strategy that has done little to address the pitiably low level of retention of the tourism dollar within the Caribbean economy.
Recent research indicates that of each tourism dollar spent within the region just US$0.15 cents at the low end and US$0.40 cents at the high end remain, meaning that tourism consumption by visitors continues to vastly outpace local production, with host countries failing to absorb and benefit from the domestic demand it could create.
This cannot be right. Tourism in the Caribbean should be harnessed in such a way that it becomes less about numbers and more about delivering lasting nationwide social and economic growth. That is to say, be of greater benefit to the small and medium-size businesses and individuals who make up 80 per cent of the industry in the region; result in genuine human resource development; enable many more Caribbean people to graduate to management positions; and be encouraged to promote an authentic national identity in all that it offers to visitors.
Unfortunately, there are relatively few individuals in the region giving serious thought to the long-term future of the industry and how it might utilise its present earning capacity to create a sustainable social and economic base far into the future.
Just as surprisingly, in a region that places a high value on ideas and debate, there is little debate or strategic understanding of the social and economic implications for the Caribbean of the changes taking place in the global tourism market.
Typically, if tourism is thought about much in a Caribbean context, it is seen either through the social lens of 1960s and 1970s academia that related the industry then, with some justification, to servitude; or more recently as a sector requiring the attention of those in business, management, or in tourism schools who seek greater industry efficiency.
Discussing this recently with Jamaica's Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett and several of the regions more thoughtful industry professionals, it becomes clear that they now believe that if the region is unable any longer to control the supply side of the industry, the region's future emphasis must be on securing control of the demand side or the software.
In this respect, Minister Bartlett is quite unlike his counterparts in the region. He believes passionately that the Caribbean can no longer take for granted its position as a premier global destination and feels that the industry must expand its international market share by ensuring tourism is deeply rooted in the region's culture and is made more beneficial to local communities.
Premier global destination
In practical terms, he suggests that the region must now work to determine how to obtain the maximum social benefit from the sector, and capture more of the tourism dollar though much greater economic integration. He also believes that for the region to continue to benefit from tourism it must find ways to ensure that Caribbean's cultural uniqueness is infused into all that is offered to visitors.
It is a form of economic nationalism that recognises that in the face of globalisation, small nations need to retain and find ways of leveraging their identity to the long-term value of their own people.
To this end, Jamaica is now well advanced with its plans to open in September a Global Centre for Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management linked to the University of the West Indies. It is intended to support new thinking through research and the communication of best practice. As a first step it will publish research on the future of the industry and disseminate information on how its benefits can be spread more broadly to workers and local communities. It is already garnering international support.
Given the new dimensions of tourism, it is a development that time has come.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council.