WASHINGTON --- Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, labeled today's aircraft as "highly fuel-inefficient" and he warned that if fuel costs per aircraft mile are not reduced, "the situation will continue to have an immense impact" on the Caribbean region.
Addressing delegates attending the first Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit this week in Washington, Greenspan warned that investors may be scared away from the region for the next few years, prompted by the economic downturn in the U.S., spiraling fuel costs and reduced service to the region.
Expensive jet fuel and a soft American economy have prompted soaring airline ticket prices and severe cutbacks in service to the region, effective in September.
Finding new ways to succeed in this changing and challenging market is the focus of the summit, which represents an unprecedented gathering of leaders from political, tourism and investment communities and the Caribbean Diaspora in the U.S. capital.
Allen Chastanet, chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization and co-chair of the Caribbean Tourism Development Co., said the region must make "a quantum leap" in its business practices to adapt to the challenges.
"A quantum leap represents a radical change forever. It is a total departure from the old way of doing things," he said. "I truly believe we are at a point in our history that we are poised to respond to our challenges by making such a quantum leap."
"Billions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs are exposed," Chastanet noted, referring to announced cutbacks in flights and service, particularly by American Airlines, which carried more than 60% of the passengers who traveled through San Juan last year.
Other carriers are making similar moves. Spirit Airlines recently announced it would close its San Juan hub, and Continental Airlines is expected to soon announce destination and flight cuts.
American now expects to cut daily flights out of Puerto Rico's capital from 93 to 51 in September. Some flights also will be cut to Santo Domingo and Samana, Dominican Republic; Antigua; St. Maarten and Aruba, AA spokeswoman Minnette Velez said.
Fewer flights to Puerto Rico also could jeopardize the island's cruise ship industry, since it would be harder for passengers to reach the island to board.
The Caribbean is still affordable for wealthy travelers, but resorts "that appeal particularly to price-sensitive families are in a world of trouble," said Christopher Hart, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.
The flight cuts are coming despite increases in tourism this year to many islands, including double-digit growth in U.S. visitors to Antigua, St. Lucia and Jamaica, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
The Dominican Republic, meanwhile, reported 407,000 U.S. tourists from January to April, a 6% increase from last year, and Puerto Rico reported increased airline passenger traffic as well.
The new president of the Caribbean Hotel Association and co-chair of the Caribbean Tourism Development Co., Enrique De Marchena, cited the coming together of the public and private sectors to strengthen the Caribbean brand at the conference.
"This gathering is a strong step in the right direction towards forging the partnerships necessary to help our region grow," De Marchena said.
Adolfo Franco, foreign policy advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean to presumptive presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), outlined McCain's vision for the Caribbean region.
"There is no longer any debate regarding the importance of the region," Franco said. "It represents big investments, potential business and a enormous diaspora. There is an unparalleled strong partnership in the U.S. with the Caribbean region's friends and allies."
If elected, Franco said McCain will offer "more opportunities and less government regulation" to and for the Caribbean region.
In the interest of fair play, Tuesday will feature a scheduled address by Dan Restrepo, serving in the same capacity for the presumptive Democratic nominee. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Caribbean leaders will also be meeting with members of the U.S. Congress during briefings on Capitol Hill.