CHTA’s high profile on regional issues is welcome

Traditionally, private sector organisations in the Caribbean have kept a low profile and not adopted strong public positions, especially where criticism of governments is involved.

This is partly because many such organisations are weak and underfunded. However even the larger, genuinely representative private sector bodies prefer low-key and usually private conversations. They hope that by not antagonising governments they can encourage the outcome they want. Their concern, in some cases, is that by appearing to disagree publicly with government, or by speaking out ahead of public institutions, they will invite retribution.

It is a view that is particularly prevalent in many smaller Caribbean nations where private sector criticism is too often seen as reflecting party-political sympathies or personal vendettas. It contrasts with the ways in which companies and associations in much of the rest of the world now actively seek to have their concerns addressed through public commentary and maintaining a prominent media profile.

Although Caribbean tourism has in recent years been more willing than most other industries in the region to encourage public debate on issues of concern, recent statements suggest that it is now willing to take an approach that befits its status as the biggest single economic component in future growth. For this reason, the willingness of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) to make its voice heard recently on three significant issues which matter not only to the industry but to the region as a whole, is both important and welcome.

In the past few weeks, the region’s largest private sector association has been prepared to speak out in relation to climate change, the damage that the new US policy on Cuba is likely to do to the regional tourism market and the industry more generally, and to welcome proposals by members of the US Congress to develop new programmes that support Caribbean development.

In each of the three cases, CHTA is leading public opinion in a practical way.

On the existential issue of climate change, the organisation issued a statement shortly after President Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change; a decision which, to its credit, CARICOM has described as an ‘abdication of responsibility’ by Washington.

CHTA could not have been more direct. The Caribbean, it observed, is particularly vulnerable to the escalating effects of climate change. Its impact, it said, ‘threatens the very viability of the region’s economies and societies, and the health and welfare of Caribbean people.’

Without mentioning the US by name, it pointed out that the issue is important to the Caribbean’s own self-interest. Sound environmental practices are essential if visitors are to enjoy the natural beauty the region offers and if it is to remain a ‘safe, secure and viable partner, benefiting its neighbours and major trading partners’, it said.

More recently, in an unusually strong statement on the Trump Administration’s new Cuba policy, CHTA regretted the reversal of US thinking on travel, noting the likely negative effects on the development of the country and the wider Caribbean region.

It made clear, in a manner that so far the region has not, that CHTA and its members reject restrictions on trade and travel, and wish to see Cuba’s active engagement in regional economic development, warning ‘that the announced policy changes could stall or altogether reverse the heartening progress made in recent years’.

It urged both the US and Cuba to accelerate cooperation, on the basis that ‘the growth of travel and trade presents the greatest opportunity for breaking the long-standing social, political and economic barriers that have historically divided the two countries’.

Earlier this year, CHTA also welcomed the US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act, and more recently has worked with regional partners to play an active role in Washington in helping to develop the bill’s proposed outputs.

CHTA’s decision to encourage public debate on issues that matter not just to the industry but to the people of the Caribbean region, demonstrates a new-found strength. It is to be commended.