BY DAVID JESSOP — When CARICOM Heads of Government met in Barbados at the beginning of July, their proceedings were dominated by a discussion of Venezuela’s unjustified claim to much of Guyana’s coastline and exclusive economic zone and to the marine jurisdictions of a number of other Caribbean Member States.
The communiqué outlining the affairs of the meeting can be found on CARICOM’s website. It includes important declarations on Guyana, climate change, CARICOM’s concerns about the regularisation of the status of undocumented migrants in the Dominican Republic, Caribbean leaders’ strong objections to the European Union incorrectly naming most of their nations as non-cooperating states on tax matters, and the development of strategies in forthcoming policy-setting global conferences.
Absent from the communiqué are the compelling remarks made by the Bahamas Prime Minister, Perry Christie, when he formally handed over the pro tempore chair of the regional organisation to Barbados. Prime Minister Christie dedicated a third of his words to the topic of tourism, its importance to the region, and the need for new initiatives– taking into account the challenge that improved relations between the United States and Cuba pose to the region’s most significant industry.
Request to heed tourism sector’s economic benefits
In what may be the first statement of its kind from a CARICOM Chairman, Prime Minister Christie called for CARICOM Heads to give greater consideration in their meetings to the tourism industry and its concerns. In doing so, he hinted that some might be avoiding the topic despite its huge economic significance. He noted that although tourism “may be redolent of a part of Caribbean history that we would want to keep barricaded”, for most Caribbean countries it is the largest earner of foreign exchange, the largest employer, and the sector that absorbs the broadest range of skills.
The Bahamas Prime Minister articulated that unless CARICOM Heads of Government signalled to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) that tourism is paramount to the region’s collective good, “they will take their cues from the rarity of discussions about tourism at our CARICOM meetings as the indicator of our true beliefs”. Prime Minister Christie also emphasized that:
“For all of our countries, tourism is the one sector for which there is no such thing as a jobless recovery. The very nature of tourism requires more people to be hired with increasing number of visitors. If unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is the scourge of our times, there appears to be no better economic sector for us to embrace in leading us closer to the promises that we have made to our lands”.
In continuing his comments, he states: “I am convinced that tourism, the largest part of our collective economies and, in most cases, the largest part of our individual economies, deserves much more attention at our regional meetings. Further, I am persuaded that tourism development and all that it entails is the fastest path to reducing unemployment in our region and the fastest path to reducing the debt burdens that terrify upcoming generations”.
End of Cuban embargo impacting Caribbean tourism
Interestingly, the Bahamas Prime Minister linked his remarks to CARICOM’s principled position on the ending of the United States’ trade embargo on Cuba. “I have to tell you that after reading the paper produced by the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) on the likely impact on Caribbean tourism of the reopening of Cuba to travel for United States citizens, I hear their appeal for us to act as a group to take full advantage of the opportunity to our collective benefit”, he told his fellow Caribbean leaders.
His reference was to a far-reaching paper produced by the CHTA on the implications of change in Cuba for Caribbean tourism, which it had linked to the need to develop a Caribbean Basin Tourism Initiative, similar to the trade in goods related United States Caribbean Basin Initiative that was legislated in 1983.
Prime Minister Christie’s comments implied that Caribbean leaders ought to 1) take seriously the concerns of CTO and CHTA, 2) determine how best to respond to a likely dramatic change in the pattern of arrivals from the United States in the Northern Caribbean as United States travel restrictions on Cuba ease, and 3) develop initiatives based on recommendations of tourism professionals and other experts.
Tourism troubles and taxation
The fact that Prime Minister Christie has tourism troubles of his own should not diminish the importance of his message. As is well known, in the last few weeks the Bahamas has been suffering economically, as a consequence of a filing for bankruptcy in the United States by the resort owners of Baha Mar, the Chinese-built mega-resort. It has also been the case that the Bahamas, unlike any other regional destination, appears to have been the first to be affected negatively by the desire of many US citizens to travel to Cuba.
The Bahamas Prime Minister also challenged regional orthodoxy on tourism taxation by suggesting that the region needed to take action to explore whether the “present high taxes” on airline tickets “have the effect of reducing travel rather than increasing it”. In doing so he suggested the region examine the likely effects of a reduction in ticket taxes and the possible initiation of a related bilateral discussion with the United States and Canada on tourism taxes.
Need for a new regional tourism approach
There is no shortage of ideas to bolster the tourism sector. For example, one response to increased Cuban competition was recently suggested by Jamaica’s opposition Leader, Andrew Holness: a focus on multi-centre tourism in the Northern Caribbean with governments initiating exchanges on quality airlift linking Montego Bay, Havana, Nassau, and Cayman, and the free movement of visitors based on a single regional visa. But beyond this, CHTA and CTO are suggesting a tactic of strategic significance: a step change in regional thinking about future tourism from North America.
Trade negotiations with Canada have halted and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with Europe is defunct. The greatest source of new investment, employment, and comparative advantage for the region is in tourism. This suggests that it is time for tourism to be at the forefront of CARICOM’s thinking about future regional growth, and as Prime Minister Christie suggests, it is the subject of a detailed and well-prepared discussion for the next meeting of Caribbean Heads of Government.