Discussing the unthinkable

Almost all visitors who come to the Caribbean have a peaceful, happy and enjoyable experience, feel secure and leave with the sense that the Caribbean, the world’s most tourism dependent region, is somewhere that is safe.

That said, and recognising that security in relation to tourism is not an easy subject to write about and emphasising there is no present threat to the region, it is clear that this may have to become more of a global issue that Governments and industry professionals, including those in the Caribbean, will need to consider closely.

Up to now, most regional discussions have been focussed on the thankfully rare occurrence of crime against visitors. While tourists are not a special case and all crime against residents and visitors alike is abhorrent, it is now widely accepted by government and the police that this must be addressed in relation to tourism so as to avoid it seriously damaging Caribbean economic development.

Less recognised, however, is the broader international impact on all global tourism of events of the kind now happening in Kenya.

As with the Caribbean, Kenya has placed emphasis on developing its tourism product to the level at which has come to underpin its economy, bring in much needed foreign exchange and result in demonstrable economic growth. However, in recent months this situation has gone into reverse with the prospects for its tourism industry and the overall economy now beginning to look decidedly bleak.

This is because fundamentalist groups operating in parts of Africa have attacked areas close to a popular Kenyan tourist destination and have formally issued a warning to foreign visitors: ‘Kenya is now officially a war zone and any tourists visiting the country do so at their own peril’. Another consequence has been for many governments to issue travel advisory notices against all but essential travel there.

While thankfully there are no such groups in the Caribbean – not least because of the region’s proximity to the United States and because there are many agencies in the region and overseas that work together to ensure that this remains so – what has happened in Kenya points to the vulnerability of any tourism dependent economy to the threat of insecurity let alone the misguided actions of fanatics.

Last year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a report on Caribbean Human Development. It noted that the region’s now heavy dependence on the sector had created new vulnerabilities. Potential tourists, it suggested, were alienated by perceptions of violence and criminal activity and searched for other locations where there was no threat to personal safety.

Addressing the issue of crime and tourism, let alone security, is not easy as there is always the danger that by drawing attention it dissuades visitors from booking a perfectly safe and happy vacation.

Events in Kenya suggest, however, that tourism needs a more joined up global approach, a better understanding of security issues, the impact that this can have on the tourism, and whether there are joint responses.

Tourism’s continuing ability to prosper should also be seen to a much greater extent to represent a key component in the region’s and every nation’s long-term defence of economic security. For this reason many of the costs associated with it such as at cruise ports or airports, should not be seen, as is sometimes the case in the Caribbean, as being for others to meet, but instead as central to maintaining the region’s viability.

There are few easy answers to the problem now facing Kenya and its tourism economy, but there is a case for the industry to channel through private comment and discussion their thoughts about the issues that it raises.