Caribbean countries must mobilize to save tourism
Caribbean countries must mobilize to save tourism
27 NOVEMBER 2017 8:42 AM

Long ago, the nearly 30 countries in the Caribbean had an opportunity to work together to promote tourism. It didn’t happen then and hasn’t happened following recent devastating hurricanes.

For nearly 30 years, the hotel and tourism forces in the Caribbean basin have discussed launching a joint marketing effort to promote the entire region’s tourism industry.

As much sense as that makes, it never happened. But now, as some islands and their tourism infrastructures are facing long recoveries following the devastation brought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, these governments have even more incentive to work together.

But just as it’s been for three decades, it probably won’t happen.

The tourism ministers and other leaders in most of these countries have been so parochial in their thinking they can’t bring themselves to understand how promoting additional tourism to the region will help them all.

While this discussion has been ongoing since the 1980s, as recently as two years ago, the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association discussed plans to attract more investment and infrastructure spending in the region as well as a more closely coordinated marketing effort aimed particularly at the U.S., the Caribbean’s primary source market. 

But all that evolved from a 2015 white paper and some high-level discussions at a CHTA conference is a little-used website consumers can use to plan and book travel to the region—if they can even find the site. 

When Irma and Maria roared through the Caribbean in September, it devastated several islands, including Puerto Rico, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominica and St. Martin, but left the vast majority of countries in the region—including such tourist hotspots as Jamaica, Cayman Islands and Aruba—unscathed or with little damage.

I believe many people only have a vague understanding of which islands were battered. To many of them, the Caribbean is one place, so the hurricanes ruined the entire region, and it’s a place to avoid when planning upcoming winter vacations. While people in the U.S. and Canada probably have a better understanding of the situation, potential visitors from Europe, Asia and elsewhere will probably completely avoid the area for this winter and perhaps beyond.

Yet, a well-coordinated and well-financed cooperative marketing campaign could have informed the world that 25 or so island countries in the Caribbean are open for business and ready to host sun-seeking tourists. Alas, that hasn’t happened, and many hotels in the region might be facing a challenging winter season.

An ironic twist to this story is that a few years ago, tourism executives on some islands were worried about the threat of Cuba as the U.S. government was moving to normalize relations with the country and open it up to additional tourism from U.S. citizens. That was the timeframe when the last attempt to create a joint marketing effort collapsed.

In the past year, however, the U.S. government has reversed some of these policies, making the prospects for additional U.S. tourism to Cuba more in doubt.

A contrast to what’s happening in the Caribbean can be seen in Las Vegas, which also had its tourism business under threat—this time from the horrific massacre on 1 October when a gunman killed 58 people and injured more than 500. That tragedy interrupted the city’s convention and tourist business in the short term, but the crisis seems to be over, in part to some quick work by the city’s convention and tourism board.

According to news reports, immediately following the tragedy, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority began work on a marketing campaign to reassure visitors the city is safe and still a fun place to visit, meet and do business. That campaign, #VegasStrong, resulted in a somber, but hopeful TV ad that soon hit the airways. Time will tell, of course, whether the tragedy will have a lasting effect on Las Vegas tourism. 

And while the disruption caused by the Las Vegas massacre isn’t strictly comparable to the hurricanes in the Caribbean, it should provide the islands’ tourism honchos with a blueprint on how to move forward.

But if history is any guide, it probably won’t happen.

Ed Watkins, former editor-at-large for HNN, is a freelance writer with 40 years’ experience covering the business of the hotel industry.

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