Some important messages from 2018

Speaking last June in New York, Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, could not have been clearer. Tourism, he said, as presently structured in the Caribbean, needs to change if it is to deliver greater economic value, increase growth and better support those who work in the industry.

It was without question the most significant message of 2018 about an industry that can bring untold benefit, but so far has not spread its rewards widely enough to all of those from Cuba to Guyana who make real the visitor experience and the uniqueness of a destination.

The Minister was making a point that many in the industry have missed, which is that if nations are to extract the maximum sustainable value from tourism, they need to think in new ways about its future development, spread its benefits more widely, its offering, and changing nature of global market demand especially among millennials.

It was a message that was long overdue in an industry that tends to sit back in times of plenty and reap the rewards. It indicated that, at least in Jamaica, there is an awareness that the structural changes taking place globally in tourism mean that to have a future, the industry must bring long term social and economic value to the region and those who work in it and offer a quality product.

It was a message that not only set apart Jamaica’s thinking on tourism from that of the rest of the region, but also found a practical expression in a decision to create, with international support, an institution housed at the UWI’s Mona Campus which aims to become the world’s leading institution for research, advocacy, training and policy development.

In a cynical world it is easy to regard this as political posturing, but what it demonstrated in a practical way is that there is no point in the Caribbean continuing to say that it is ‘the most tourism dependent region in the world’ unless it can develop facts based evidence about how this is a weakness and how, for example, it requires support in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

A further reflection of this came in the dawning recognition among international financial institutions that what drives tourism and its broader economic inputs is not being captured by a region that simply counts arrival numbers and estimates visitor spending.

The second important message of 2018 was contained in the revelation that the IMF at a staff level had begun to work with big commercial accumulators of data such as TripAdvisor to develop information that would help them analyse and forecast the broader economic impact of tourism and its relationship to the wider Caribbean economy.

This decision highlighted a third important message from 2018. That was that artificial intelligence (AI) will revolutionise almost every aspect to of the way the industry relates to those it is trying to attract to destinations and properties. What became apparent in the year just gone, was that the industry is on the cusp of a revolution that most in the region are ill prepared for. Thy use of AI’s advanced algorithms to combine information from big data accumulators from supermarkets to airlines has begun to produce information on potential travellers that will enable personally directed marketing from the point at which it can reliably be anticipated a vacation is first being considered.

At the less positive end of the spectrum 2018 indicated that existing inter-regional mechanisms that relate to tourism are failing. Despite CARICOM heads of government having agreed in 2017 that tourism is central to the future of the Caribbean economy, there were few signs of regional tourism friendly policies emerging or a response to the industry’s concerns. The only bright light was the election in May of a new Prime Minister in Barbados, Mia Motley, and her recognition of the need to work to ease inter-regional travel for CARICOM citizens and visitors.

To complicate matters further, there were signs in 2018 that the underfunded government and private sector bodies that represent the industry had begun to fragment. While the CHTA and individual associations like ASONAHORES in the Dominican Republic still provide wise advice, the emergence of separate bodies representing, for example, Spanish hotels or international chain hotels, indicated that achieving unity on what matters regionally on tourism will become more difficult.

2018 was also the year that saw tourism weaponised by a US administration which reversed the Obama era polices of encouraging US stay-over travel to Cuba, to the benefit of US cruise lines; a worrying trend in often underreported crimes against visitors in some Caribbean nations; continuing problems with over-priced and over-taxed inter-island air services; the emergence globally of potentially powerful movement concerned about the impact that ‘over-tourism’ is having on popular locations; more positively, most 2017 hurricane-ravaged islands reopening to visitors; and numbers increasing from new source markets, most notably China, Russia and Brazil.

All of which indicates just how much needs to be achieved in 2019 and beyond, if Caribbean tourism is to deliver sustainable growth of benefit to all.

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The views and opinions expressed in the Business of Tourism are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Caribbean Council.