Star ratings and the authentic Caribbean

Some time ago I received an email asking me how many five star hotels there are in the Caribbean.

I replied that there was no recognised or independently adjudicated rating system anywhere in the region other than in the French départements d’outre-mer. This meant, I said, that hotels chose their own classification largely based on their marketing preference, so that it was impossible to know how many such properties there were, or how valid any such description was.

Subsequently, and on looking into this further, it emerged that there are relatively few locations globally that have official hotel rating systems. Although France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, and Canada have a well-ordered approach to hotel classification, there are huge variations in the criteria used, the way each scheme operates, and the amount of statutory control exercised by their public authorities.

In the case of France, for example, since January 2016 there has been a nine-page table that sets out the 241 criteria for a tourist hotel within a scheme that requires all such facilities to be rated at between one and five stars, or to have the designation ‘Palace’ if they have an exceptional geographic, historical, aesthetic or heritage characteristic. The small print also makes clear that some special opt-outs and provisions exist for hotels in France’s widely scattered overseas territories with, for example, exemptions granted to hotels in the Pacific or Caribbean for not having heating.

A similarly detailed approach exists in Germany and Spain, where consumers take the system seriously, and hoteliers are prepared to go to court to ensure a more beneficial adjudication against the set criteria.

Elsewhere however, such arrangements tend to be voluntary, tied to groups of chain hotels, or to membership of a trade body.

In the Caribbean, the issue was last explored in 2002 when the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) produced a research paper that implied that some consideration was being given to the possible introduction of a scheme that would classify hotels at a national or regional level.

The CTO paper observed that by adopting an international classification system, the region and the industry would have the advantage of enabling the travel trade and consumers to easily recognise the accommodation standard they might expect, regardless of the location of the property. It also outlined how a national system might be implemented.

However, nothing of the kind came to pass, so that today four parallel approaches to hotel ratings exist within the region.

The first involves hotels principally owned by international operators. They have instituted their own subjective star ratings with the consequence that sooner or later one can imagine a property selfdesignating as worthy of the seven-stars that the Burj Al Arab in Dubai claims. The second involves external organisations such as Forbes, Michelin, or the AAA which have established their own inspection teams and ratings systems, which largely designate in their annual guides the same elite hotels in the region. A third is for search engines to apply stars, based on the recommendation of
third parties such as travel agents or from peer reviews on booking sites such as TripAdvisor. And the fourth is for alternative criteria to be developed by organisations such as Green Globe, the global travel and tourism industries’ certification programme for sustainable tourism, whose Caribbean members include for example Half Moon in Jamaica, Bay Gardens in St Lucia or Spice Island in Grenada.

The consequence is that what passes for a ratings system in the Caribbean is unregulated and appears primarily to benefit hotels and those who market properties and destinations. In particular, it is of value to a few high-end non-indigenous hotels, that use their assumed status to denote ultraexclusivity in a manner that seeks to separate them perceptually from the region in which they are located.

Surveys however note that visitors, and especially higher spending millennials, want something different. Instead of homogenised and hermetically secure global standards of luxury, they prefer a sense of place and experiences.

This suggests that hotels and destinations should think less about bestowing status and more about renewing the product in a manner that promotes the uniqueness of the Caribbean and the nations in which they are located.

In the last few years, industry leaders have come to recognise that the challenge for Caribbean tourism is reorienting and developing the product across a broad mix of hotels and other tourism facilities. They believe that this needs to be undertaken in ways that reflect changing visitor demand for the authentic, for quality service and cuisine, and better value for money in relation to competitor destinations, in order to appeal to visitors seeking much more than just a luxury hotel and a beach in the tropics.

There is of course a continuing place for the Ritz-Carltons and their role in bringing to the region high-end and celebrity visitors, who are attracted by global brands and their facilities.

For many years, all Caribbean destinations, including more recently Cuba, have been desperate to attract their like as an indicator of quality, and to demonstrate that their nation has become a location of global note. However, the danger is that an overemphasis on their presence leads to emulation, and can over time bring about the eventual homogenisation of architecture and cuisine, the dumbing down of entertainment and local culture, and the downgrading of much else that is unique to the Caribbean.

This is not to suggest that there should not be a balanced offering, or to deny that to achieve viability there is need to resolutely focus on certain parts of the tourism market. Rather it is to observe that if the Caribbean and ratings systems do not recognise that the region 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.