Bahamas PM underscores importance of tourism sector to region development

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The annual Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) Market place is under way here with Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie underscoring the importance of the tourism sector to the socio-economic development of the Caribbean.

Christie addressing the three-day event, said that tourism as a direct contribution to Caribbean gross domestic product (GDP) was three per cent in 2015 compared to the worldwide average of 3.7 per cent.

He said the sector as a total contribution to Caribbean GDP rose by 2.9 per cent last year  and is expected to increase by 3.3 per cent of GDP per annum each year over the next decade, against the worldwide average of 3.8 per cent.

He said in the region, total capital investment in tourism grew by 4.2 per cent in 2015, as compared to the worldwide average of 4.8 per cent.

“All of this suggests that while we are holding our own in tourism in the Caribbean, we must do much better if we are to meet the needs and expectations of Caribbean citizens over the next decade and that we must be intent on giving prioritized focus to those drivers of our economies that will leverage our tourism assets for continued and accelerated growth in the years to come.”

Christie said he welcomed the move by the United States to re-open diplomatic relations with Cuba and to work toward completely lifting the trade embargo.

“With the US trade embargo eliminated, Cuba will enter the Caribbean arena as a heavy weight contender for the region’s share of the tourism trade. Among Cuba’s many attractions is her novelty and human beings are naturally attracted to what is new.

“But let’s keep in mind that there is an upside to stiff competition. Competition motivates us to reach deep within and bring out qualities that we are unaware that we possess. All nations seek to strengthen their economic position through collaboration with neighbouring countries.

“Cuba is no exception. Already, several of our destinations have entered into agreements with Cuba to do joint tourism marketing and to create multiple destination packages,” Christie said, noting “for us in the Caribbean, it is no longer business as usual.

“We are at that juncture in our development as tourism dependent nations where the name of our region must become synonymous, bar none, with world class, impeccable service, value for money, top rate accommodations and wonderfully memorable vacation experiences.

“The upside is that today’s global economic landscape continues to provide opportunities for each of the Caribbean’s tourism destinations, even as our governments seek to mitigate challenges such as infrastructure development, energy security, technological advancement, citizen security and climate change that impact tourism development.”

Christie said that the three-day event here has attracted participation from Latin America and other global emerging markets which are well poised to tap into mainstream and niche tourism and hospitality products available throughout the Caribbean region.

But he said he was perturbed at the increase in “random, wanton acts of terrorism in areas around the globe that are highly frequented by tourists.

“The constant threat of terrorism creates a psychology of anxiety. It is our earnest hope that peace would soon be restored to those regions. In selecting the Caribbean for their clients’ next holiday, travel professionals the world over can have peace of mind that our region is one of calm and stability.

“The Caribbean is a region full of tropical dream vacation destinations that persons around the world desire to visit at least once in a lifetime. There are enough island gems in our region for the traveller to collect one, two or three each year for decades to come.

“While we are proud of our product offering we are also acutely aware that tourism is the world’s largest industry and that global competition for the traveller is fierce,” Christie added.

Prime Minister Christie said an area of growing concern, however, to the tourism industry stakeholders, and which is also gaining his attention, is the increasingly high cost of taxes and fees on air travel to and within the region.

He said air-related taxes and fees for travel to the Caribbean can represent over half of the cost of an airline ticket for a number of destinations.

“Arguments have been presented by the private sector which contend that by reducing the cost of air travel, primarily through tax and fee reductions, we will stimulate more travel to the Caribbean and government revenues will be protected and even enhanced through an increase in visitor arrivals.

“There is some evidence that this would be the case. When the United Kingdom reduced the air passenger duty, travel increased. Here in The Bahamas, when we adjusted some of our fees to the airlines, some of the airlift we lost which was attributed to the fees returned. We’ve seen examples throughout the region of how air and cruise travel has been stimulated when the cost of travel is reduced.”

But Christie said that at the same time with greatly reduced fuel costs on the world market and the use of more fuel efficient aircraft, “it is only reasonable to expect the benefit of these cost reductions to be passed on to the travelling public, thereby stimulating additional travel and leaving the tourist with more money to spend within the destination, and giving the region a better competitive edge.

“The cruise lines provide ample evidence to us about how price stimulates travel and how occupancy rates can be increased with pricing strategies,” he said, adding “most cruises to the Caribbean are operating at, or near, 100 per cent occupancy.

“Compare that to our hotels which are operating at between 65 and 70 per cent occupancy, and you see the tremendous growth opportunity which already exist without a single additional investment in new hotels.

“Raising occupancy rates by ten percent would go a long way in increasing employment and tax revenues. Concomitant with such an initiative thought must be the thrust toward employee training for sustained improvements in service delivery.

“This is but one way that we can improve tourism performance and accelerate the rate of growth of our economies beyond international forecasts.

“Growing tourism performance to beat the odds means that we will be forced to innovate and to push the boundaries of our knowledge, abilities and capacities to enable us to declare our tourism industry as “cutting edge” as we seek to remain both individually and regionally competitive in an arena which will continue to power not only our economies but the global economy over the next decade,” Christie added.

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