Tourism has caught the attention of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) heads of government – and we’re not sure if it’s again or at long last.
At their meeting in Antigua at the beginning of the month, the heads “devoted the first business day to discussion with representatives from the tourism, hotel and regional airline industries on the options for enhancing regional tourism in the context of current international trends,” reported the post-conference communiqué.
It is safe to assume that these “trends” include current international strife and tensions and the daily increases in the price of oil with its twin pressure on airlines’ economies and finances as well as on potential middle income travelers.
According to the communiqué, the heads “agreed on a strategy of a Regional Marketing Campaign including the adoption in principle, of a Caribbean Regional Brand and the creation of a Marketing Campaign Fund, as well as the establishment of timely and comprehensive information gathering systems which would adequately reflect the contribution of tourism to the national economies”.
For some of us this is déjà vu or better, déjà vu all over again, as attributed to Yogi Berra or Sir Gary Sobers, depending on who shares the joke.
There was a long debate in the late 1980s on just such a marketing campaign and fund. The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) were leading such a charge. They hauled on board the recently retired from domestic politics, Michael Manley, to be the tourism knight and the Caribbean Development Bank lent seed money to get the ball rolling and the heads on board.
Somewhere about 1993 those with long life may remember the first season of marketing the Caribbean as a single destination, with the Beach Boys paid tons of money for the use of their “Kokomo” as the theme song in the ads. (Those of us who thought there were Caribbean artists who could provide the theme a la Jamaica and the Wailer’s “One Love”, were told that it was for brand recognition, Americans knew the Beach Boys.)
The campaigns, which lasted a few seasons, were funded by contributions from regional tourism interests led by American Airlines and other carriers, various other tourism interests and the governments, with contributions based on some formula. Many governments defaulted on their contributions.
The funding model was based on an annual collection and it wasn’t explained why something like a trust wasn’t established to ensure the clichéd sustainability. The venture collapsed and must have died.
That’s the marketing segment of the heads’ deliberations. The other was the establishment of timely and comprehensive information gathering systems…. Have you ever heard of the Caribbean Tourism Organization? Sorry, we mentioned it above so that should have been, “Have you ever heard of the CTO?”
Well, the CTO is the result of the merger in the late 1980s of the Caribbean Tourism Research and Development Centre (CTRC) in Barbados and the Caribbean Tourism Association (CTA) that was based in New York. The Barbados headquarters continued to focus on research, data collection and development and the New York and London offices continued to emphasise market activities.
The CTO has led the region in the timely collection and dissemination of data relevant to its specialty and has been at the forefront of efforts to realise its integration into the regional economies through horizontal linkages into areas such as agriculture, manufacturing and craft. It has led identifying opportunities in diversifying the product and facilitated the initial conferences on eco-tourism that evolved into the sustainable tourism confab; it led in studies on tourism impacts and in advocating the merger of the regional airlines to achieve economies of scale and other efficiencies.
Imagine the surprise at the following take from the communiqué: “Related practical proposals on the role and challenges of Caribbean air carriers also engaged the attention of the Heads who reaffirmed their support for stronger collaboration and functional cooperation among the Regional Airlines, the establishment of Regional Hubs and a focus on emerging new markets.”
A result of the heads conference will be “a Special Meeting of the Council for Trade and Economic Development (COTED) on Tourism [to] be convened to examine the related modalities and report to a meeting of the Bureau of Heads of Government within the next sixty days”.
The CTO membership and mandate goes way beyond CARICOM, into the 30-odd Hispanic, French and Dutch territories with Caribbean costs. Its board comprises tourism ministers who sit in council separately from their industry colleagues that complete the CTO’s directorship.
While the tourism actors and the rest of us must be happy that CARICOM heads are again recognising the presence and importance of the sector, there seems to be a long period of dreamtime which has elapsed since the last glance; and in all this, despite Kokomo why isn’t the CTO at centre stage?