Tourism Officials Debate Caribbean ‘Reinvention’

Caribbean “reinvention” is needed to lure the region’s flat tourism, but it won’t happen with its current “daily intent to cooperate,” a theory that also applies to the region’s airlines, most of which are bleeding red ink.

By: Laura L. Myers

FREEPORT, Bahamas Increased collaboration among Caribbean nations and coordinated regional air connections or a single Caribbean carrier are needed to boost Caribbean tourism, Bahamas Prime Minister Perry G. Christie urged during the 25th Annual Caribbean Tourism Conference (CTC-25).

Caribbean “reinvention” is needed to lure the region’s flat tourism, but it won’t happen with its current “daily intent to cooperate,” a theory that also applies to the region’s airlines, most of which are bleeding red ink.

“Bahamasair loses money, Air Jamaica loses much money, BWIA loses much money, same for Caribbean Star, LIAT, Cayman Airways,” Christie said. “Where are the coordinated air services to our islands? Where are the coordinated route-planning meetings between the carriers of the Caribbean?

“We must find a way to lock the CEOs of these carriers in a room and refuse to open the door until they have a plan that will reduce our losses and increase our services to and throughout the Caribbean.”

On the retail side, small Caribbean hotels that aren’t affiliated with tour operators have been impacted by airline commission cuts, said agent Sue Heffner, president of the CTO chapter in Sacramento, Calif.

“There’s a segment caught in the commission crossfire and that’s the small hotels,” Heffner said.

She cited an example of how she recently sold a cruise to a honeymooning couple instead of a Caribbean vacation that would have cost her clients $1,200 each in airfare.

‘Mortal Competitors’

Themed Reinventing Caribbean Tourism, CTC-25 drew approximately 800 delegates, including 190 travel agents, to Our Lucaya resort on Grand Bahama Island.

Of the 32-member Caribbean Tourism Organization, 27 countries were represented. Only a handful of delegates from Jamaica attended.

Globally, visitor competition remains fierce, but the largest Caribbean nations The Bahamas, Jamaica, Cuba, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Puerto Rico still view each other as “mortal competitors,” Christie said.

“From Cuba to China, from New York to Hong Kong, from Disney to Universal Studios, the competition for visitors has never been tougher,” he added.

Christie pointed out that agents selling the Caribbean must specialize their skills to compete with Internet bookings and consider specialized supplier partnerships.

“The new travel agent will have to convince the customers that their specialized and discriminating knowledge of our region or country will warrant their services,” he said. “In the same way that there is a group of specialized agents selling cruise travel based on a business relationship, there is an urgent need for specialized Caribbean travel agents based on the same kind of relationship.”

Christie also took aim at the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s new regional marketing campaign, Life Needs the Caribbean, a public-private sector television promotion, now halted until after the Nov. 5 congressional elections in the United States.

“I understand that the regional television campaign has access to advertising rates that are often lower than the cost being paid by contributing countries for their own individual campaigns,” he said. “We do not collaborate enough in our region on those business issues that will save our treasuries much cost and make our efforts much more effective.”

The first phase of the $16 million campaign began airing Aug. 21, and an additional eight-week schedule was targeted for Sept. 16. However, a CTO committee canceled it Oct. 16, citing U.S. economic woes.

The campaign has been ineffective for small islands, stated Dwyer Astaphan, tourism minister for St. Kitts, describing small Eastern Caribbean nations as “mere bridesmaids.”

Plog Poll/b>

In related news, research outlined by NFO Plog Research of New Brunswick, N.J., revealed that travel agent usage by Caribbean leisure travelers is continuing a “slow decline as an information resource.”

More than half of Caribbean vacations are being booked on the Internet, said Gregory Diaz, Plog’s director of travel industry research.

Caribbean leisure travelers typically are affluent couples with few children, an average age of 47 and a preference for shopping.

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