Transforming the Caribbean tourism model

14 December 2017

A little over two weeks ago in Montego Bay an international tourism conference formally endorsed a new and potentially challenging way of seeing the future of tourism.

The thinking, which emerged at a well-attended United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) event, organised with the support of the Jamaican government and its international development partners, envisages the industry’s growth is directed in future in ways that drive economic development. It sees the industry becoming a driver of social change and playing a central role in delivering the UN sustainable development goals that aim to end poverty globally.

The multifaceted conference was, as its intellectual author, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, imagined. It variously attempted to look over the horizon in the manner of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos; recognised that the Caribbean is in a pivotal position to change global thinking as one of the world’s most tourism dependent regions; and created an opportunity for that the region to position itself to benefit from future concessional development financing related to tourism’s sustainability.

Although the conference was welcome, timely and thought provoking, it is not clear what the response will be to what is a quasi-statist approach. This is because some cruise lines, big hotel chains, and those who sell the product, despite paying lip service to the ideas discussed, in private express concern that implementation may disadvantage them commercially.

Nor is it clear whether all Caribbean governments and ministers genuinely accept the premise, the multi-sectoral inter-dependence implied, or would sign on to a position that would require all new developments in tourism to spread their income and inputs more widely.

At the end of the conference the UNWTO issued a fifteen-point Montego Bay Declaration. This sets out how the process might move forward between now and 2030.

The ideas it contains are being driven globally by some governments, multilateral institutions, and Non-Governmental Organisations. They are also being considered in a commercial setting by more thoughtful hotel groups and those in the industry and its associations who recognise that visitor demand is changing, and that this necessitates a different product and greater social responsibility.

No doubt the Jamaican government will in the coming weeks indicate how it together with the UNWTO intends to proceed. However, if the UNTWO declaration is to have legs in a Caribbean context, it now requires discussion and more generally, the buy-in of the private sector and civil society, and its endorsement by all Caribbean heads of government.

That said the event was also of importance for the many interesting ideas and case studies presented in its working sessions.

Of significance was the view that the changing nature of visitor’s interests may help drive the changes envisaged.

At the event there was something close to a consensus that the growing international demand for the authentic and experiences, rather than a homogenised product, would necessitate reorienting tourism in ways that brought benefits to communities away from the beach.

Crucially in this context, the conference heard from leaders of Jamaican, Dominican and Spanish hotel chains who have already recognised changing international and visitor sentiment and are rising to challenge of encouraging development beyond their properties.  They spoke about how they are already working through foundations and partnerships, and in the case of the Punta Cana was willing to explore on a region-wide basis how their social development programmes might be transferred elsewhere in the region.

The meeting also heard many fascinating presentations, for example on the use of advanced ICT applications to support staff training; how religious faith can drive environmental and social awareness; developing folklore centres to drive rural tourism; and how the experience of Sunday brunch with her parents had provided one female entrepreneur with the stimulus to develop a business inviting visitors to experience the authentic over a meal in homes in the Bahamas.

The politicians and the industry will likely now debate how to take forward the big ideas reflected in the conference declaration. Let us hope too that the many practical and thought-provoking ideas that emerged which could revolutionise the Caribbean’s tourism model are not forgotten.