Winds of change confront Caribbean Tourism

By Bevan Springer

NEW YORK – Reverend A.R. Bernard, founder and CEO of the Brooklyn-based Christian Cultural Center, the church home for thousands of Caribbean-Americans in the tri-state area, teaches that “Change is the only constant in life; And when change is necessary, not to change is destructive.”

It is fitting to share this principle as the Caribbean’s travel and tourism industry undergoes a transformation as “old things are passed away and all things are become new.”

Senator Allen Chastanet, St. Lucia’s Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation who currently serves as the chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), told an industry audience recently that “as we prepare for the future, we need a change in perspective and attitude. We need to fight complacency, to define success, not by relying on traditional indicators such as visitor arrivals, but by measuring our performance against our potential. Too often in this region, we settle for mediocrity without fully understanding that the good is the enemy of the best. Real success is when we rise to our true potential.”

Today, the Caribbean’s tourism industry, faced by serious competition from regions such as Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, and closer to home in the “Sunshine State” of Florida, has not risen to its true potential, registering – in spite of the region’s competitive advantage – a mere two and a half percent growth last year compared to worldwide increases of seven percent.

While our lifeblood industry has had its challenges, the foremost of those being the US passport requirement for American visitors when returning home, several destinations such as Anguilla, Bahamas Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Turks & Caicos have re-positioned their destinations as attractive locales for business, vacation and investment while ably guided by some astute and visionary leaders.

Others like Jamaica, St. Lucia and the United States Virgin Islands are being led by a refreshing new generation of public servants who are transferring their experience and expertise from the private sector to help meet the socio-economic needs of local communities.

But overall the Caribbean is losing its market share, a setback that requires an urgent comeback.

Former sacred cows such as beloved regional carrier LIAT and regional organisations like the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and its private sector cousin the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA), are no longer exempt from criticism and their current leaders deserve appreciation for taking a close look at their relevance in today’s rapidly changing world where customers and constituents are demanding more.

The CTO has already begun to restructure by requiring Ministers of Tourism to meet separately and apart from directors, thereby distinguishing the crafting of regional policy from its implementation. Once policies have been set, directors and commissioners can then use their creative imagination and skills to develop plans and programmes that help to aggressively position the Caribbean’s brand, without too much interference from the politicians.

CHA too is seriously looking at restructuring itself. Having downsized its San Juan, Puerto Rico operations to have its affairs centrally managed from the Miami office, CHA wants to change its name, to go beyond hotel members and fully embrace the wider constituency of Caribbean tourism stakeholders, such as attractions, banks, farmers, lawyers, doctors who each provide services and benefit from tourism.

A wise man once said you cannot heal a thing by saying it is not there. It is no surprise therefore that today’s young tourism turks are peeling off the scales, identifying our inefficiencies and making changes that our embattled leaders have been reluctant to make in the past.

Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, CTO’s Secretary General, notes “The level of innovation that is required confronts us with a very steep hill to climb. In order to do so, we have to go through the “creative destruction” process that the economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out long ago was most necessary for significant leaps in progress.

“We in the Caribbean have long wanted to ‘eat our cake and have it too’. We want to make the changes necessary for progress but we also want to preserve all of the current practices and processes at the same time. True progress does not permit that outcome. True progress always requires that there be “winners” and “losers” and that the benefits delivered by the “winners” far outweigh the total losses of the “losers”. We cannot abide the idea that there must be some losers in the wake of progress.”

More changes are on the horizon, but we must be mindful that the more things change, the more they don’t stay the same.

Whether it is anticipating the needs of customers, providing value-added services, implementing serious measures to combat crime and changing our approach to marketing, there is unquestionably the need for serious action in the Caribbean.

But, alas, we must be committed to our confessions.

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