New markets for Caribbean tourism?

Bevan Springer | 9/5/2012, 6:27 p.m.
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NEW YORK (Aug. 2, 2012)--There is just too much global competition in the agricultural sector, so the Caribbean has to shore up its bread and butter industry, tourism, before it too is weakened by growing, better-funded competing destinations.

Even though so-called "trade liberalization" has crippled much of the region's agricultural sector, opportunities exist through the marketing of value-added agro-based products such as rums and West Indian Sea Island cotton.

But no matter what the old-school critics say, the international jury has voted with its feet by heading to the region, firmly establishing tourism as by far the leading foreign exchange generator for the vast majority of Caribbean countries.

Unlike agriculture, so fragile to changes in taste, climate and trade policy shifts, tourism is not a fickle industry. On the contrary, it is resilient and by far the quickest sector to get back on its feet after a disaster. Remember New York's rebound after the Sept. 11 attacks, fueled by visitor arrivals?

And the wonderful thing about tourism is you are not forcing things down peoples' unwilling throats. Tourism, in fact, is the greatest voluntary transfer of wealth from the rich to the not-so-rich in the history of humankind.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about diversifying away from the traditional North American and British travel markets and penetrating emerging markets from India to Russia and China.

The results have been a mixed bag, mainly because of a lack of vision and inadequate air links between the Caribbean and some of these destinations.

Furthermore, there are some huge markets not far from the region. Look at a map: The oil-rich giant Venezuela can be seen from Trinidad on a clear day. New York is much farther away than the getting-richer-by-the-day Brazil, which shares a border with Guyana.

It requires airlift and smart partnerships between Caribbean countries to build and maintain these aerial highways to open up a big part of the architecture of the future form of Caribbean tourism.

The Caribbean cannot afford to rest on its laurels. We need to go fishing where schools of opportunity reside. The United Nations' main tourism body states there are plenty of fish out there for those willing to take the extra steps.

Remember the economic recession we're going through? Tourism seems to be relatively impervious to it. According to the U.N.'s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourist arrivals worldwide grew by 5 percent in the first four months of 2012, "despite remaining economic uncertainties in some of the major outbound markets."

The UNWTO believes the continued strength of tourism is particularly important in the context of the current economic uncertainty, reinforcing the need for increased political commitment and support to the sector.

In the context of the Caribbean, the region's political directorate needs to lead us into some of these heretofore remote regions to bring home the business and to use the robust aerial highways between places like Dubai and New York, for example, to tap into the oil-rich Middle East and upscale Asian travel markets.