The emergence of the travel and tourism sector in the Caribbean coincided with a move away from complete reliance on agriculture as the primary money earner. The decline of bananas, sugar, bauxite, vanilla and other such revenue earners meant Caribbean countries needed another means to grow their economies and tourism was a natural fit.
Whether it was for the curative benefits of sea bathing or the warm tropical temperatures or simply for pleasure, the Caribbean possessed all the attributes to become a successful tourism destination.
In the 214 years since Lawrence Washington, accompanied by his younger brother George Washington – who would later become the first president of the United States – visited Barbados to treat his tuberculosis, or the 237 years since the Bath Hotel and Spring House on Nevis became the first official hotel to open in the Caribbean, tourism has become the number one generator of foreign exchange for the region and is responsible for approximately 33 per cent of GDP (up to 77 per cent in some member countries of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, CTO).
Last year, tourism contributed US$29.5 billion to Caribbean economies and this is expected to rise this year. The theme for this year’s World Tourism Day, One Billion Tourists, One Billion Opportunities, is a perfect reminder to us of the important impact tourism has on our countries and communities, and the many opportunities to grow our tourism. The over one billion people expected to travel internationally this year will challenge us to create experiences and memories that appeal to each individual, so not only will they come again but they will also encourage their friends and families to visit. In essence, it’s one billion opportunities for the most effective advertising there is.
The theme also reminds us to place greater emphasis on measuring the total value of tourism to the region. Tourism Satellite Accounting (TSA) is considered as the most accurate approach to truly quantify the impact of the travel and tourism sector. The CTO has been working with our member countries to implement TSAs and we have organized training programmes with the support of the Inter-American Development Bank.
Last year our region’s arrivals were up five per cent over 2013 and this year we expect another five per cent or so rise. Our realistic goal is to break the 30 million barrier by the end of 2017. But it won’t be easy. A look at the major source markets reveals that the Caribbean faces competition from domestic tourism marketing in the North America; challenging economic conditions in South and Latin America; and the strengthening of the US dollar against the euro, making it cheaper for Americans to visit Europe. At the same time, intra-regional airlift continues to be a major challenge.
Yet, as the theme for World Tourism Day states, the opportunities are there and, while it has eluded us thus far, a fund to market the region as a single destination remains a desirable goal.
Notwithstanding the massive impact tourism has on the day-to-day lives of Caribbean people, the sector still struggles to gain prominence on the agendas of meetings among regional leaders. The former chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie referred to it in his outgoing speech at the meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government in Barbados in early July. There, Prime Minister Christie pleaded with his fellow leaders to give tourism greater prominence at their meetings, stressing that to do otherwise would send a message that they did not take tourism seriously.
Another important variable impacting on Caribbean tourism is the mushrooming economy made possible by the World Wide Web, which is effectively redistributing wealth among non-traditional entities. For example, in January 2015 the Barclay’s Report stated that Airbnb, with approximately one million available rooms, had more room inventory than the largest hotel companies. Independent citizens are offering the majority of rooms and the system is providing significant revenue for Caribbean people as far north as Cuba, to Guyana all the way in the south.
Likewise, Uber is generating a private and unlicensed taxi boom across the US and the UK, which is also challenging the traditional tourism transportation sector. With recent industry trend watchers predicting that contemporary travellers will increasingly demand more local immersion and less staged authenticity or “tourist traps”, it is expected that this deviation away from industry norms will continue.
Properly equipping our region’s future tourism practitioners is essential. We are pleased to note that the number of scholarships for tourism students continues to rise through the efforts of the Caribbean Tourism Organization Foundation, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association Education Foundation and strategic partners. The alignment of these scholarships with areas where there are deficits helps to increase the employment opportunities for these graduates within their chosen fields.
It is fair to state that the quality of life enjoyed by many Caribbean territories – the sophisticated road networks, world-class health care, solid foreign reserves and complex educational systems – is largely due to the success of the tourism industry.
However, until the tourism sector gets serious about quantifying its true impact on our livelihood, we will not have the tools to properly enlighten our citizens and to move the sector to the top of the national and regional agendas.
Hugh Riley is the Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.