Tourism director details efforts

Given the expansiveness and diversity of the tourism industry in the context of these Cayman Islands, we expect there to be a healthy debate of differing opinions on the subject of tourism.

Consequently, we accept that criticisms of the Department of Tourism are par for the course and often times the comments are constructive, helping the industry identify an area that needs further attention or at least, needs improved communications to inform the public.

Rarely does the Department of Tourism feel compelled to respond to negative press coverage; however after a reading an editorial in a local paper (not the Caymanian Compass) we felt that the article was so full of inaccuracies that it was important to set the record straight.

According to the editorial, the DoT is: out of touch; lacks a cohesive and effective marketing strategy; only targets the rich and famous; and does no advertising or promotions whatsoever in Canada. This was obviously written without an interest in the facts, because the DoT was not contacted for any information on any of the subjects raised in the editorial and it does not consider any of the information already in the public domain, including the update on the global marketing strategies shared at the Annual Tourism Conference held in September 2007.

So, what are the facts? When considering the performance of Cayman Islands tourism, the DoT recommends a more balanced scorecard of tourism performance than simply visitor arrivals; however, this is the single score by which the average person measures this industry’s performance.

Cayman Islands’ total air arrivals are up 8.9 per cent year to date through November 2007 at a time when most of our Caribbean competitors are reporting flat or decreased air arrivals for the same period compared to 2006. The DoT does not take credit for these numbers; this is the work of an industry working together

However, the DoT does take the lead and does most of the destination’s marketing, promotions and public relations and in that sense, we take responsibility for generating awareness of the destination, interest in and demand for the Cayman Islands in the primary markets of the United States, Europe and Canada.

These results are hard earned in the face of several external negative factors including the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which came into effect in January 2007, the worsening U.S. economy, and intensifying competition from a number of aggressive Caribbean destinations and US domestic destinations.

More importantly, the outlook for the first quarter of 2008 is strong as reported by our leading airline and accommodations suppliers. We expect the entire industry will have to work harder than ever before and make some strategic adjustments to produce this level of visitor growth in the summer and fall of 2008 given the current economic realities in the United States, which accounts for 80 per cent of our total annual air arrivals.

Turning to Canada, at our Annual Tourism Conference in September, we shared publicly our top-line marketing strategy and plans for Canada. In early 2007 Earl B Smith, who had represented the Cayman Islands in Canada for 30 years, retired. This provided the DOT with the opportunity to review its Canadian marketing strategy and to redevelop its approach to the Canadian market.

Results of this redevelopment include a new advertising campaign running in all of the major newspapers and travel and consumer publications; a redefined trade and consumer promotions plan; and a PR strategy focussed on targeting select media and freelance travel writers, as well as looking for unique opportunities to publicise the Cayman Islands in areas of interest to Canadians, outside of traditional travel marketing.

We are now in the second year of an aggressive growth programme for the European market supported by two years of increased funding and the investment is already bearing results. Through November we saw an 18.8 per cent increase in visitor arrivals from the UK and Ireland for a total of 13,575 visitors. Combined with the countries of continental Europe, the region has produced a 16.5 per cent increase year to date. The Cayman Islands’ strategic investment is Europe deserves its own focussed discussion and I will reserve that for another, more appropriate opportunity.

When considering the current panic and outcry over reduced cruise numbers it must be remembered that this is in direct contrast to last year’s panic and outcry over having too many cruise visitors. The DoT is not directly involved with the decisions relating to cruise ship call patterns or call volume and neither has it, historically or currently, engaged in any cruise advertising efforts. The real issue is that of sustainable levels of cruise tourism business and how to best manage the guest experience.

Of the much-touted, rich and famous segment that is the DoT’s self-proclaimed niche – please provide evidence that we have claimed this niche. The current target has a household income of US$100,000 per year (before taxes) and that represents some 22.2 million U.S. households (source: US study on Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage issued in August 2007). Given all that we hear about the U.S. economy, does anyone truly believe that there are approximately 42 million rich if not famous Americans living in these 22.2 million homes? Rather, it would seem that these 22.2 million homes are fairly average and they house individuals who work and save hard so that they can take a family vacation every year.

The DoT is in active discussions with the private sector and Ministry about developing different household income targets based on seasonality and purpose of visit, but this is being done to increase the Cayman Islands ability to attract new and repeat visitors in the context of the realities of our tourism industry: namely its airlift, costs and other external factors like exchange rates or the weakening U.S. economy.

Every year the DoT, in collaboration with the private sector, works to develop a coherent and effective marketing and promotions strategy across all three of our major markets: US, Canada and Europe.

At a 2008 Strategic Marketing Meeting held in July 2007, members of the Ministry of Tourism, the Department of Tourism, the Cayman Islands Tourism Association and the Sister Islands Tourism Association agreed on three main objectives: 1) To increase air arrivals to the Cayman Islands; 2) To increase local awareness and understanding of the tourism industry and; 3) To improve both customer satisfaction and visitors’ perceived value of a Cayman Islands’ vacation.

The joint public-private sector working group is developing Action Plans for each of these objectives and identifying public-private sector teams to champion each of them. These objectives will be used as key considerations when making any decisions in 2008 and beyond.

This response is part of our commitment to increase local awareness and understanding of the tourism industry.

The facts demonstrate that the DoT is connected, in touch and working to bring accurate, up-to-date research to the strategic planning table with our industry partners both here and overseas. We work in a consultative and collaborative way with our private and public sector stakeholders.

There is always room to learn and to improve, and we are committed to continuous improvement.

The Department of Tourism acts strategically and moves forward side-by-side with its industry partners. There are times when acting strategically means change and involves risk. We would be remiss if we didn’t identify and address liabilities as well, pointing out the dangers of standing still, of remaining committed to segments or programmes that produce diminishing returns.

Despite the importance and breadth of the tourism industry to the Cayman Islands, too many people choose to remain uninformed and therefore, draw incorrect conclusions. There are many opportunities to learn the facts. I encourage you all to attend at least one tourism related public meeting, conference or information session that is held in 2008.

Tourism is everyone’s business but few people take the time to truly understand it. As a community, we owe it to ourselves to understand the industry, its importance to this economy and in so doing, perhaps consider the distinction between fact and fiction.

Pilar Bush, Director of Tourism