BY SIR RONALD SANDERS — The performance of only five of the 14 independent Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries are recorded in “The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015” published by the World Economic Forum.

Of the 141 countries measured by the report, Barbados is the highest-ranked CARICOM country at 46, followed by Trinidad and Tobago at 69, Jamaica at 76, Guyana at 104, and Haiti at 133 near the end. The only other Caribbean country graded in the report is the Dominican Republic at 81. Surprisingly, countries such as the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. Lucia, all of which rely heavily on tourism for their economic growth, are not included in the report’s measurement of competitiveness due to insufficient data.

It is regrettable that the majority of tourism-dependent CARICOM countries were not included in what the report rightly describes as “a strategic tool for both businesses and governments”, allowing for “cross-country comparison of the drivers of” Travel and Tourism (TT) competitiveness, “for benchmarking countries’ policy progress and for making investment decisions related to business and industry development”.

Not enough promotion and support of TT sector

According to the report, common TT issues in the Caribbean include underdeveloped natural and cultural resources. Tellingly, the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI) suggests that most Caribbean countries rely extensively on their beaches but do not seem to promote their cultural resources sufficiently.

The TT industry is growing more quickly than the global economy as a whole, and so is related employment creation and higher paid jobs in the sectors that service the industry. These sectors are not limited to hotels, ground transportation, restaurants, and shopping. They now include hospitals and other medical facilities; trained persons to maintain yachts; mechanical engineers for airplanes and ships; rental of properties; and technology savvy persons capable of delivering services in a wide range of telecommunication areas. The TT sector, therefore, remains a thriving business from which Caribbean countries can benefit enormously if innovative measures are put in place.

Lessons to learn from others

The report’s methodology for measuring global competitiveness is based on 14 important pillars, including: business environment, prioritization of travel and tourism, price competitiveness, tourist service infrastructure, and cultural resources. Graded by these criteria, the top ten most competitive countries in global TT competitiveness are (in descending order): Spain, France, Germany, United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, Japan, and Canada.

Caribbean countries could learn lessons from the success of the nations that now top the TT league table. For instance, while France is ranked 2nd overall, it attracts the most tourists with over 84 million arrivals. This is because the government and the private sector give priority to the TT sector. They have invested in developing tourist facilities for leisure and conferences and have proactively built up their natural heritage resources and historical sites. Throughout the Caribbean, there are many such resources and sites, but they require private sector development within a government-private sector agreed plan.

Italy, which is ranked 8th in the overall rankings, manages only 127th position for business environment. This is because the country has an inefficient legal framework, high taxation, and regulations that are a disincentive to investment. Noting this, Caribbean countries should be prudent when encouraging the private sector to share in the costs of developing the TT sector. After all, tourism is an export. Overtaxing hotels, airlines, and passenger tickets raises costs and renders the tourism product uncompetitive. Airline travel within and to the Caribbean suffers now from high government taxes on tickets.

Notably, China has jumped 27 places to reach number 17 in the global rankings. Tourists are attracted to its cultural resources and its World Heritage natural sites that have been developed and made accessible. In 2013, China welcomed over 55 million visitors. This is a significant achievement that Caribbean countries must pay attention to if they are to improve their standings, as the report explicitly states that “the lower than expected performance of Caribbean countries on the Natural Resources pillar is partly explained by a lack of UNESCO natural heritage sites and a low percentage of land being officially protected”.

In South America, most countries have prioritised air transport, particularly with larger and newer airports and terminal buildings. Some of this is necessary, especially for countries whose tourism volume has outgrown the facilities their airports provide. However, ground transportation is underdeveloped, undermining the effects of investment in air transport infrastructure by limiting the ability to move within countries.

Barbados: A beacon of light

A similar transportation situation exists in most Caribbean countries, with Barbados being the most notable exception. While bus rides on that island can sometimes be hair-raising, for the most part they are safe, accessible, and inexpensive. In regards to the development of the TT sector, other Caribbean countries should keep in mind that tourists do not travel to airports; they travel to countries. Airports are important to ease entry and exit and should be as accommodating as possible. But visitors want to experience the country, not just the airport. Without good ground transportation, they are deprived of that opportunity.

Barbados deserves commendation not only for being the only CARICOM country in the top 50 most TT competitive countries, but also for maintaining the statistical information that permits it to measure itself against its competitors. The importance of good statistical information in all aspects of decision-making is often overlooked. Consequently, many governments and private sector organisations are forced to make crucial decisions on a guess rather than on sound evidence. Guesses are not a basis for successful planning or effective competition.

Looking to the future

Overall, countries that maintain a competitive edge in TT are those that are alert to changing trends. For example, the number of people over 60 years of age is predicted to rise from 900 million in 2010 to almost 1.4 billion by 2030. These older travellers have larger budgets, and while they account for only 40 percent of all travellers, they represent 60 percent of wealth, and they travel all year round. Countries that take this trend into consideration by making their tourism industry more accommodating to older travellers, in addition to adapting to other trends in travel, will do well in being more attractive destinations.

The TTCI provides important data and analysis of the factors that make for success in TT as well as the issues that obstruct the industry’s development. It is regrettable that many Caribbean countries were excluded from the report because of insufficient data by which to measure their strengths and weaknesses. Without information on how they perform against their competitors, governments and the private sector will not be able to identify the requirements to do better.

Image Credit: Jorge Quinteros

Caribbean tourism competitiveness not to be taken for granted

Sir Ronald Sanders

Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda's Ambassador to the US and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Sudies at London University and Massey College, University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own.

Category: Travel