Selling the authentic Caribbean

After years idling in the doldrums, visitor arrivals to some parts of the region are increasing rapidly, travellers are spending more, and the yield for hoteliers is improving. Moreover, as demand soars, it is becoming much harder during the high season for visitors to find a quality hotel room in the high season at short notice in Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and some smaller Caribbean destinations like Aruba.

Cuba apart – a special case following the virtual freeing of US travel restrictions late last year – this rapid increase in demand for a Caribbean vacation largely reflects the fact that disposable income in the main feeder markets in North America and parts of Europe is increasing as economic recovery occurs, and travellers begin to feel more financially secure. It is also the case that some Caribbean destinations such as parts of Jamaica’s north coast have again become ‘hot’ in the eyes of those who establish on social media and in print the image of an aspirational destination.

But for the most successful Caribbean markets there are also other factors at work.

The recent surge in visitor demand and early indications that even the lower cost options of the upcoming summer season is building well, reflects better marketing, product improvements, and new airlift that has resulted in improved access, for instance, from the countries of Latin America and from Scandinavia. It also, in part, reflects the ability of lower cost air carriers to pass on to the growing numbers of visitors using their services, the savings they are making as the price of aviation fuel falls.

What this means is that the industry in many Caribbean tourism destinations is not only making a significant contribution to national economic recovery but again demonstrating its often ignored significance to the wider Caribbean economy.

At its most basic, this is good news, but it also raises interesting questions as to where the region’s product is headed now that sustainable growth again seems possible.

For some, renewed demand is simply about a return to business as usual, the end to heavy discounting of room rates, and the Caribbean again taking its ‘rightful place’ as the world’s paramount warm water destination.

However, for those in the industry who are more thoughtful, it is about recognising that during the years of stagnation, the global market place for tourism has changed, becoming intensely competitive, and that the future will require adapting the product and the tourism offering so that present success is sustainable.

For those willing to look over the horizon, the issue now is about reorienting and developing the Caribbean tourism offering to reflect changing international demand for the authentic, for quality service and cuisine and, even when the price is high, value for money. It reflects too an understanding that a significant part of the higher spending end of the market is looking for much more than just a luxury hotel and a beach in the tropics.

This will mean a sea change in the way that some in the industry and government in the region think. It is about more than the normal default position of rebranding. It requires a new approach, involving both the industry and government reconceptualising tourism, hotels and the tourism product in ways that make it globally competitive and ensure that a visitor feels that the region and a destination is special and wants to return.

This will not be easy as it requires properties, restaurants, attractions, and, if they are able to become better corporate citizens, the internationally branded chain hotels, to think in a vernacular way and come together to renew and develop the product in a manner that promotes the uniqueness of the Caribbean nations in which they are located.

By the vernacular in tourism, I mean giving greater consideration to the genuine in the physical, cultural and social environment in which tourism takes place.

Over simplified, while there is a place for Disney, the Hard Rock, and the Ritz Carltons, these offerings have nothing to do with the region. They bring visitors but they are based solely on generic global brands that have little to do with the nations in which such properties choose to locate.

Worse, in their desire to attract globally branded properties that put the destination on the map, governments unintentionally imply these are benchmarks to which they should all aspire. The effect is to promote emulation and a clash in its broadest sense with local culture, homogenising architecture and cuisine, dumbing down entertainment and much else that is unique to the Caribbean.

This is not to suggest that achieving this in a rational and balanced way is easy, or even viable for certain parts of the tourism market, but if the Caribbean does not recognise that it has more to offer than a smart international hotel, with smart international cuisine, set on a white sand beach with a golf course, it is neither doing the country in which the property is located a service nor underwriting long-term competitiveness in an international market where almost everyone else is doing the same.

There are already in the region some interesting examples of how the vernacular might be achieved. At its most obvious, the approach has tended to be in old colonial districts. At its most successful, it is a few streets in the colonial part of old Havana, but it also exists in a number of largely upscale hotels and some restaurants in Grenada, Barbados, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.

This is not to set aside what the Caribbean already has, but to suggest that there is a need in future for a more creative approach that ensures that from the moment a visitor arrives they are not in a pastiche of the authentic.

This will not be easy. It requires the industry and government to consider how best to renew and develop the product in a manner that promotes the uniqueness of the Caribbean nations in which they are located.

There is now every reason to take a much longer term view on these and other issues, to look over the horizon, and to try to envisage what a competitive Caribbean tourism mix might look like in twenty years’ time.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted

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May 24th, 2015