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Caribbean Tourism at a Crossroads

By John Collins (1)

St. Lucia’s Prime Minister Kenny Anthony reviews challenges, opportunities of region’s major industry following aftermath of  9/11 terrorist attacks.

Our crossroad can be seen either as a place of imminent crisis, or as a nexus of need and opportunity,” said St. Lucia’s Prime Minister Kenny Anthony in opening his feature address, “the Desired Destination,” to the recent 6th Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Investment Conference at the Westin Rio Mar Resort.

“It is a point where we recognize the need to make definitive decisions about our future – both as a region and as individual destinations – and the opportunity to chose new directions from a map of options, or indeed to reconfirm that we are already on the right growth path. A crossroads is not necessarily a bad place to be; providing we use the opportunity to review progress, verify our position by reading the signs and update our vision of the desired destination.”

A prominent attorney in his own right and reelected to lead his country for a second term last year, Anthony acknowledged that he’s hardly an expert on tourism but he can offer “some public policy perspectives on issues confronting the region and its existing and potential investors.”

“In the last two decades or so there is no doubt that the region’s tourism industry has seen explosive growth,” said the St. Lucian leader. “Gone are the days when sleepy little islands awoke to the odd handful of curious adventurers who dared to make the one Atlantic crossing of their lifetime.

“Caribbean tourism is now a major engine of economic growth that few governments can afford to ignore,” said Anthony. “In the regional context, tourism is even more crucial to economic development, supporting as it does, the balance of trade and the balance of payments, ensuring currency stability and underpinning growth in traditional sectors like agricultural and construction.”

St. Lucia, located about 500 miles southeast of Puerto Rico, is an island nation between Martinique and St. Vincent & the Grenadines in the Windward Islands. It occupies 238 square miles and has a population of 158,018. Its gross domestic product is an estimated $707 million accounting for a per capita income of $4,302 per annum. Tourism has emerged as the principal economic activity in the country.

With two major airports and excellent port facilities, St. Lucia has emerged as one of the most important destinations in the Eastern Caribbean. With an inventory of 3,000 rooms, it received 250,132 overnight visitors in 2001, down from 285,422 in 2000 which reflects the impact of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.  The number of cruise passengers also declined to 385,673 in 2001 from 486,961 in 2000.

Sandals or Fairmont?

St. Lucia hoteliers want to forget the devastating last quarter of 2001 when occupancy  plummeted but most report recovery since, while slow, has been better than expected. An exception was the bankruptcy of the St. Lucia Hyatt (CB  April 4, 2002) which is now at the center of a court case with the proposed acquisition of the property by Sandals being contested by Canada’s Fairmont Hotels. The controversy is expected to go to trial shortly.

Indicating that the delegates at the conference “should not be daunted by the trying circumstances facing them,” the prime minister said “let us welcome the circumstances, in so far as they have provoked deep introspection. Let us be determined about moving ahead with decisive action in the cause of the industry that most influences our individual and collective welfare.”

In addressing the importance of stimulating the return of investment capital to the region, Anthony said “governments need to adopt pro-market policies while considering societal welfare. Governments, together with the communities and constituencies they represent also seek a return on their investment; even if that return is measured in different units such as employment, foreign exchange earnings or tax revenue.”

Calling for closure on the debate on whether or not the Caribbean is high priced, Anthony said “we are at the high end of the market and the goal should be to sustain that enviable position through incremental quality improvements. If recent events teach us anything, it is that high end product recovers faster and continues to see in periods of economic uncertainty.”

Indicating that mass tourism “cannot work for all of us,” the St. Lucian leader said some destinations “must build slowly, with a cautious eye on the long-term effects of rapid growth and equally rapid resource consumption.”

Describing the problem of airline service as “a serious concern,” Anthony said “the trend of late has been for international carriers to seek subsidies in return for guaranteed flights. This places everyone in a precarious position and creates market distortions which we may all someday regret.”

“While we may have varying perspectives, we share the same hope – however differently expressed – of maximizing the economic and social benefits of each tourism dollar,” said Anthony.  “Let us combine our resources to create, sustain and enhance our considerable advantage in the production of the desired destination, the home of the unforgettable Caribbean experience.”

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1) Other articles by the well known Caribbean author John Collins can be read at:
www.pymesdominicanas.com

April 29, 2002

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