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Why tourism is a policy issue

Published: 
Friday, March 11, 2011

As this is being written, the United Kingdom Government is preparing to launch a national tourism policy.
Its objective will be to recognise the central importance of tourism to Britain’s future economic development. In what was believed to have been the first speech on tourism ever by a British Prime Minister, David Cameron argued last August, that as the third largest contributor to the UK economy, tourism needed to be integrated into every aspect of Government policy. Tourism, he said, was not a second class service sector but was ‘fundamental to the rebuilding and rebalancing of (Britain’s) economy’. It was he said, ‘the best and fastest way of generating jobs’. For every half a per cent increase in the UK’s share of the world market, tourism can, he said, add US$4.4 billion (£2.7 billion) to the economy, and more than 50,000 jobs. Britain’s emphasis on tourism, plus similar initiatives announced recently by President Obama, ought to give the Caribbean politicians pause for thought.

Pause for thought

It suggests that at the very least the region’s governments should ask why, if the world’s major economies are adopting high profile approaches to promoting tourism development they, as representatives of the world’s most tourism dependent region, do not have an integrated strategy in place that ensures the industry is at the centre of future Caribbean economic growth. To put the regional tourism industry’s importance in perspective, the Caribbean is thirteenth globally in absolute size; first in its relative contribution to national economies; and tenth internationally in its contribution to long term national growth. Moreover, it is the biggest employer after the public sector, the largest single contributor to gross domestic product and was worth in 2010 some US$39.4 billion based on an estimated Caribbean travel and tourism demand of US$55.4 billion, less imported goods and services including travel and tourism spending abroad of US$16.0 billion. Despite this, the industry and many Caribbean tourism ministers struggle to have the sector’s development dimension understood in an holistic way.

Not properly understood

For instance, when as is likely the region comes to consider the impact that now rapidly rising energy and food prices will have on the Caribbean economy, past experience suggests that the when it comes to tourism the dangers will go largely unremarked and unaddressed, despite the fact that it is only the industry’s sustained competitiveness that will ensure most Caribbean nations remain viable. According to the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association’s (CHTA) President, Josef Forstmayr, what is missing still is a consensus among regional leaders and the public about the importance of tourism to the Caribbean’s future. So concerned has the body become about the absence of a long-term regional policy perspective on tourism, that it has developed a campaign to create greater awareness of the sector’s significance.

Tourism is key

It has rolled out across the region a “Tourism is Key” campaign that has as its objective, having everyone from hotel workers, to schools and overseas visitors –and, by extension, governments and regional institutions; understand just how significant the industry has become. It is doing so by highlighting the contribution tourism makes to employment, economic growth and foreign exchange, and how it touches the lives of almost everyone in the region.

Tourism and Caribbean economies

There are also plans to simplify parts of the message in order to ensure that it reaches the grass roots through an approach that for instance will thank fishermen, farmers and poultry producers for ensuring that visitors are able to eat the local produce they catch or grow. In a series of simple advertisements and poster and counter cards placed in hotels and at the sites of major conferences such as Caribbean Heads of Government meetings, the industry is providing simple facts about the central economic role that the industry plays.

CHTA also intend that there should be a major regional conference in Barbados on this theme this summer so that political and business leaders and key individuals in central banks, regional institutions, the police and other bodies can better understand the significance of the industry to the region’s future. Tourism Ministers, too, are focussing more on trying to establish a stronger policy dialogue on the developmental importance of the industry. The Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), with the support of the regional private sector, will organise a forum in Brussels on March 14 in the European Parliament and at ACP House.

Closer policy dialogue

The event for tourism ministers and invited guests is intended to establish a closer policy dialogue on tourism and related development issues with Europe’s Member States, the European Commission and the European Parliament and begin a process that CTO hope will give tourism a greater focus in future EU development concerns in the Caribbean. The forum will consider how the tourism chapter in the EU- Cariforum Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) is to be made operational and support made available for the public and private sector. Participants are also expected to debate the ways in which EU approaches to aviation, security, the environment, carbon trading and clean energy apply in the context of Caribbean tourism policy.

While every country has a tourist board, a tourism minister, a marketing strategy and a wider private sector dependent on the industry’s fortunes, tourism is still not seen as a policy issue that requires much better co-ordination at a national level if the Caribbean is to remain competitive with other destinations. Nor is it viewed at a regional level as a matter of central importance when it comes to exchanges with external partners on a wide array of policy issues from climate change to terrorism, and taxation. If tourism is to receive the support it deserves as the Caribbean’s most vital export, the contribution of the industry to regional development has to be better understood by public officials, the industry itself and the communities where it takes place. Put another way the state of Caribbean tourism now warrants being an agenda item at every regional and external event.

Davi Jessop is the director of the Caribbean Council [email protected]

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