Increasing global competition within tourism, escalating fuel prices, the US economic slowdown and the US elections all have the potential to paint a grim picture for the Caribbean’s tourism industry.
The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.
That was the message from Chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation Allen Chastanet to delegates attending the recent Caribbean Media Exchange on Sustainable Tourism held in Puerto Rico.
More than 100 delegates, comprising of journalists, students, development specialists and tourism officials gathered together from 15 to 19 May to interact on tourism related issues.
‘I’m here today to say the debate must stop. I believe in the next two years there will be things taking place in this world that we’ll long for the days we let pass,’ said Senator Chastanet, also St. Lucia’s tourism minister.
He referred to US carriers which are to cut up to 20 per cent of their carrying capacity because of escalating fuel costs.
And the fact that the US is going into an election only serves to make the situation worse. ‘It is always in an election year that business drops in the fourth quarter anywhere between 20 to 30 per cent,’ he said.
Noting the combination of the US economic slowdown, the election and the drop in airline capacity, he said there could be a dramatic drop in tourist arrivals to the region in the third and fourth quarters of this year, and even the first quarter of next year. ‘So that’s three quarters in a row in which you’re going to see a tremendous decline in numbers.’
Mr. Chastanet said the opportunities to truly embrace tourism within the Caribbean have not been seized, and while world tourism grew by nearly seven per cent in 2007, this region grew by two per cent, while market share dwindled from 4.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent.
‘Times are changing and unfortunately the world economic situation as it is, with oil prices climbing, will have significant implications for this region in the next six to eight months and we don’t have time to waste.’
Tourism ministers are due to meet on 29 May in an emergency session and again on 21 June in Washington DC, followed by a CARICOM heads of government meeting in July where tourism issues would be discussed.
Mr Chastanet added that some hardline decisions must be taken, such as a way to come up with $30 million for marketing the region. Noting that tourism brings billions of dollars of foreign exchange and investment in the region, he said, ‘If we leave that meeting in July without a formula to raise money for a regional marketing campaign, I’ve attended my last regional meeting.’
He criticised those Caribbean countries that are increasing departure taxes, fuel taxes and landing fees despite the fact that airlines are all losing money right now.
In an increasing competitive tourism climate, he warned that tourists are now demanding the best.
Mentioning such travel review sites as ww.Tripadvisor.com, he said, ‘People cannot get away today with the same mistakes over and over again. And I believe at some point there will be a Tripadvisor that will talk about the destinations. We’ve been very lucky so far they’ve stuck to the hotel part of it.’
The CTO head said people will not put up with nonsense anymore: long lines, taxi drivers ripping people off, food and services not being good. ‘We need to step up to the plate because there are other countries and destinations in the world that recognise what tourism can do.’
He spoke about the rise in tourism elsewhere. In 2006 in Dubai they had six million tourist arrivals; China had 40 million tourists last year, while other places such as India, Russia and Eastern Europe are becoming popular tourist destinations.
‘And we continue to lament here and [have] discussions on all kinds of things rather than getting down to action.’
Using St. Lucia as an example, he said that customs duties there represent three quarters of the total income to government and 50 per cent of that income is from tourism.
In order to be successful down the road the distinguishing feature of any island or destination is its own distinct culture. ‘People want to go somewhere and see something different,’ he said.