International tourism is perhaps the single largest engine for sustained economic growth. This is not surprising. As economic conditions improve worldwide, more people are finding themselves with leisure time and the personal resources to engage in travel. Moreover, despite the increase in trouble spots around the world, especially in the Middle East and Asia, more and more people are simply moving around for recreational purposes.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than across the Caribbean region, an area long recognised for its attractive locales of beautiful seascapes, magnificent landscapes and predictably sun-filled days. Caribbean land-based tourism has been growing a little ahead of the rate of global growth in travel. That is very good for the Caribbean. But is the Caribbean about to kill the goose that has been laying the golden egg? Can tourism be the key to sustainable economic expansion across the Caribbean?
First the good news. In 2014 the Caribbean region attracted more than 26 million tourists who contributed almost US$30 billion to local economies. In ranked order of arrivals, the top six recipient countries were: The Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Aruba, and The Bahamas. More than five million tourists visited the Dominican Republic in 2014; and that country ranked behind only Aruba in return tourists. Cuba, despite the US embargo, received more than three million tourists and has one of the fastest growing rates of growth in the region. Tiny Aruba, a small island of merely 69 square miles and a population of slightly above 100,000 received more than a million tourists. Two important observations emerge. The first is that Aruba clearly shows that geographical size is not an important consideration in establishing a successful industry. The second is that there still remains enormous elasticity in the development of Caribbean tourism. The potential for continued growth, therefore, remains high.
At the same time, international tourism is an extremely sensitive and variable industry so Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean must examine carefully their strengths and their challenges and plan carefully for the future. The cruise industry is growing faster around the Caribbean than land-based tourism. This is a big challenge to hotel-based tourism. Without reducing the level of violence in the region, it will be harder to compete with the expanding cruise industry. Headlines from Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Trinidad can sometimes be extremely off-putting for would-be travellers and enhance the appeal of competing locations like Cuba, the Dominican Republic and The Bahamas. Finally, Caribbean hotel prices are too erratically inconsistent. Too often the hotel prices charged do not correspond to the expected quality of service. This is a serious problem across the region.
Therefore, the Caribbean hotel industry cannot rest on its well-deserved laurels. It must continue to innovate in order to survive. But it needs to take a leaf out of the book of the most successful international tourist operators. To be truly successful the industry has to be a genuinely national operation, not the prerogative of a few privileged individuals.
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