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Edmund Bartlett: Jamaica-Cuba-Dom Rep: Tourism threesome, anyone?

Published:Sunday | May 8, 2016 | 5:00 AM
Edmund Bartlett

The growing tourism industry represents the most important form of economic activity in the Caribbean today, with earnings in excess of US$30 billion, providing jobs for one out of every five employed persons and attracting just over 25 million visitors annually. Beyond that, it is the only industry over which the region has both global comparative and competitive advantage.

Nevertheless, despite being the most tourism-dependent region on earth, the Caribbean's share of the global market represents around 2.5 per cent of the 1.2 billion tourism travellers and approximately three per cent of global tourism expenditure. But of even greater significance is the level of tourism-dollar retention ranging between 15 US cents at the low end and 40 US cents at the high end, meaning that tourism consumption by visitors outpaces local production and the host country's capacity to absorb the demand it creates.

This demand for goods and services utilising indigenous materials, skills and technology is at the heart of issues surrounding our economies' absorptive capacity and asks the key question, WHY?

To answer this, we may need to examine our methods of production, our skill sets and our application of technology. Nonetheless, geographic size and our propensity to compete against each other could offer some clues into our less-than-par performance.

 

UNDERPERFORMING

 

Let's take, for example, Jamaica, which now records 3.4 million stopover and cruise visitors and revenues of US$2.5 billion per annum, but nets less than US$300 million after related imports of goods and services are factored. With value added amounting to less that five per cent of GDP and jobs amounting to less than 10 per cent of the island's workforce, one sees readily that Jamaica is underperforming in the realm of its potential to provide significant economic well-being to the country.

While Jamaica needs to respond more robustly to the market, both in terms of increased visitor consumption and increased local production, its scale and resource limitation are militating factors that cannot be overcome readily.

This resource limitation is regularly reflected in the absence of critical mass needed to attract large investments in supply and distributive chains as airlines, tour operators and even manufacturers need capacity to realise economies of scale and maintain competitiveness!

In short, Jamaica, as a single destination, will struggle to achieve the full potential of tourism and will continue to grow at anaemic rates of two to three per cent, and with earnings registering the same lacklustre growth. The Caribbean, too, as an archipelago of mini island states with similar disabilities of poor economies of scale and limited absorptive capacity, will continue to not benefit as much as they could from tourism.

 

RETHINK TOURISM ARCHITECTURE

 

The time has come, then, for a critical rethink on how we treat tourism in the Caribbean. We must look at ourselves and review current methods and practices. Or better yet, let's examine the tourism architecture in its entirety, which we have frankly become too comfortable with.

An architecture of going it alone, of fierce competitiveness, nationalism and emphasising individualism, while the global tourism market is growing and our share becomes smaller and smaller, is nonsensical. The obvious corollary to that is our countries get poorer and poorer, become further indebted, and inevitably keep us trapped in a spiral of economic despondency and worsening social crises.

The need, therefore, for new thinking and a revamped tourism architecture in the Caribbean can lead to a collaborative approach that involves convergences of consumption and production patterns within our geographic space.

This will require:

1. An acceptance of our vulnerabilities as a result of geography, scale and capacity.

2. That together we represent the most alluring warm-weather tourism destination on earth, with a diversity of unmatched experiences.

3. That by collaboration we can leverage this geo-social endowment to great economic value for our people.

MULTI-DESTINATIONAL TOURISM

In that vein, multi-destination tourism, which is the marketing of a variety of experiences and locations under one umbrella, is an excellent architecture for Caribbean tourism offering a value proposition that is irresistible. This new architecture requires harmonisation and convergences not only of marketing and distribution channels but aviation and immigration.

There will be need for a high degree of travel facilitation within our borders, as well as rationalisation of airspace and open-skies arrangements to enable full access to the respective experiences. The need for a single visa regime or the abolition of visas is another key facilitation action which will make distant markets such as China, India, Eastern Europe and South America more attracted to the model, as their vacation periods, which typically run two to three weeks, will be enriched.

Economic convergences are a logical offshoot of multi-destinational tourism, as the critical mass will now be created for large investments in hotels, infrastructure, agriculture and manufacturing. Further yet, small and medium-size businesses will enter the market, providing more goods and services, employing more people and provide valued-added goods and services to the economy. A win-win for all!

The countries of the northwestern and southeastern Caribbean are well positioned to embrace this new architecture, as their geographic alignments are clear and are all within an hour and a half by air or sea from each other, making it easy for island-hopping and experiential enrichment for the visitor.

A very good start to multi-destinational tourism could be Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, three of the larger countries, with total annual visitor arrivals of around 12 million and earnings of around US$12 billion.

This is a critical mass that would be an attractive proposition for airlines, tour operators and investors in tourism infrastructure.

The time is right for this new architecture, this new partnership, to generate new prospects for much-needed economic growth and job creation within the Caribbean, and yes, a new partnership for prosperity. Tourism shall lead the way!

- Edmund Bartlett is the minister of tourism. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.