A stronger regional position on tourism required

Having spent much of my working life between meetings in Europe, the Caribbean and North America on issues affecting key Caribbean industries, I have probably met and observed more politicians and diplomats than most.

Throughout, I have been fascinated by the different ways that people relate to them and their position, and how they in turn respond. By this I mean the degree of actual or implied deference that is shown or expected at meetings and at conferences.

Compared with Europe, where for the most part demonstrations of esteem have largely been replaced by informality on both sides, it sometimes comes as a shock to visitors to the region to hear lengthy, sometimes long-winded introductions and the repetitive recognition of the individuals present and on the platform.

As an industry, tourism has in public been perhaps more respectful and formal to those in government and positions of influence.

This may be because its normal interface with ministers and officials often relates to regulation and taxation, and unlike in much larger societies, those in political office either know them or do not forget the positions they have taken.

Tourism also has more than its fair share of set piece events, in part one suspects, because there is still no formal ministerial mechanism within CARICOM to have its policy concerns heard at CARICOM’s Heads of Government meetings, despite the industry now almost universally being recognised as the principal driver of the regional economy.

Whether politicians and participants at conferences want or expect such formality, remains something of a mystery; not least because every Caribbean tourism minister I have met or worked with has been down to earth, practical and able to relate easily to everyone from the most powerful in the industry to the sales person on their first ‘fam’ trip to the Caribbean.

I was therefore delighted to see that not only had the St Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association recently invited Sir Roland Sanders, the diplomat, commentator, and sometimes iconoclast, to address their annual general meeting, but that he had actively encouraged them to become more frank at the regional level about their requirements, and to encourage a more effective regional integration process.

While much of his address was devoted to the deficiencies of CARICOM, he made a number of telling industry-specific points, some of which those in tourism do not often hear from those as it were, on the outside.

Firstly, he noted that an increasingly high degree of political and economic unpredictability in some of the region’s key source markets for visitors, and the growing threat from terrorism. All of which, he said, had the potential to adversely impact travel and tourism.

Secondly, while noting the industry’s success, and the recognition accorded by international bodies like the IMF in driving the economy in most Caribbean nations, he observed that this was taking place against a background of increasing inter-regional competition for visitors, higher regional taxes on air travel, increased utility costs, the negative implications of climate change, and more general governmental pressure to deliver employment, revenues and foreign exchange.

Thirdly, on climate change, Sir Ronald made clear that although the Caribbean is among its greatest victims and least among the polluters, it would not benefit financially on an equivalent basis. This was, he said, a legitimate question for the industry to raise questions about, as its businesses will be the first to be affected.

Fourthly, he did what few diplomats or regional politicians have done before. He acknowledged that, despite tourism often being dismissed as being “too fragile” to be a real player in the economic development of the Caribbean, the industry had emerged “as a strong and resilient economic activity that has been a fundamental contributor to global economic recovery by generating billions of dollars in exports and creating millions of jobs.”

And fifthly, he called for meetings of Tourism Ministers to become “an organ of CARICOM, enshrined in the Treaty similar to Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Ministers of Trade.” “It is time,” he said, “that this missing link be corrected, and I hope that you will encourage your colleagues in the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association to call for it.”

He also spoke about closer co-operation with Cuba on building a stronger Caribbean brand; the need to focus on diversifying feeder markets for visitors, from China in particular; and encouraged the industry to call on all decision makers to recommit themselves “in deed” to the objects of regional integration, including how CARICOM as a whole might at an economic level integrate with other nations in the region.

As it moves forward, the industry in the Caribbean needs to be more direct about its policy requirements at a regional level.

It needs to invite and hear from more speakers like Sir Ronald, who are able to mix the regional and political, with thoughts about the industry, so that its members and governments come to recognise that it has become the most powerful economic player in the region, with the legitimacy and position that sugar and bananas once had.