NEW YORK — It seems a match made in tourism heaven. China was flirting with the Caribbean, and the Caribbean was winking right back.
The much-anticipated third annual Avalon Invest Caribbean Now 2013 forum, held here on June 5, included a panel titled “China and the Caribbean” with representatives from the Chinese government and the Chinese-American business community as well as investment companies. All had come courting a very receptive audience composed of dozens of Caribbean tourism ministers, private-sector partners and government policy makers.
The event had been organized by the Caribbean Tourism Organization and digital media solutions company Hard Beat Communications during Caribbean Week here.
China is no stranger to the Caribbean region.
In 2012, China invested $9 billion in various projects in the Caribbean, a 9.4% increase over 2011, added to the hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, grants and other forms of economic assistance it had already channeled in the past decade, according to Li Li, managing director of the Chinese American Business Development Center.
“Our president Xi Jinping pledged more than $3 billion in loans in 2013 to 10 Caribbean nations and Costa Rica during his recent visit to Trinidad,” she said. “In the next two years in the Caribbean, China will invest in agricultural centers and the hospitality industry, set up 1,000 scholarships to medical students, develop sports facilities and computer centers and invest in secondary schools on several islands.”
Trade with the Caribbean and Latin America totaled $261 billion in 2012, a 9% increase over 2011, according to Li.
“We are eager to continue to do business with the Caribbean,” she said.
The Caribbean region is just as eager for Chinese tourists as it is for Chinese investments.
As CTO Chairwoman Beverly Nicholson-Doty pointed out, “We in the Caribbean have the vacation formula down pat. We know how to do that. How can we prepare for the Chinese visitor?”
Direct airlift from China to the Caribbean is the biggest challenge, said Xiaoguang Liu, consul in charge of economic and commercial affairs of the Consulate General of China in New York.
“If the lift materializes, prepare your airports and get ready for the invasion,” he said.
It could be quite an invasion.
“Chinese travelers made 70 million overseas trips in 2011,” Liu said. “That figure could top 100 million by 2015. To attract and cater to even a small portion of these travelers, Caribbean resorts must adapt to the Chinese visitor.”
Meanwhile, Anthony Eterno of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Caribbean Affairs /Western Hemisphere Division said the Obama administration remains committed to an economic partnership that stimulates growth with the region.
Eterno, who warmed the audience with mention that his wife is a “Vinci” (native of St. Vincent), cited the U.S.-Caribbean Community Trade & Investment Framework Agreement signed by Vice President Joe Biden on his recent trip to Trinidad.
“This agreement is essential to spurring economic development and diversification of the region and contributing to the well-being of citizens,” Eterno said.
Other speakers included Rufus Ewing, premier of the Turks and Caicos, who outlined the investment opportunities in his destination, and Miguel Reyna, director of port business development and asset management for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., who summarized the line’s port investment activity in the Caribbean.
Recipient of the 2013 Corporate Leadership award for commitment to serving the Caribbean region’s tourism sector was Royal Caribbean International. Royal CEO and President Adam Goldstein and Mike Ronan, vice president of government relations for the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia, accepted the award on behalf of the cruise line.
In video remarks, Goldstein said, “The Caribbean has been the heart and soul of who we are and where we go for 40 years. Our goal is to continue to work closely with the Caribbean so that the region’s ability to retain and attract cruise ships remains as strong and as robust as ever.”
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.