What's the current state of the Caribbean tourism industry?

Speakers at the Caribbean Tourism Organization's recent State of the Industry Conference in Barbados had answers, as well as a list of concerns and challenges.

Caribbean tourism is on course to exceed 30 million visitors this year, which would set a record following the 28.7 million visitors in 2015.

But Obie Wilchcombe, the minister of tourism for the Bahamas and the newly elected chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, succeeding Richard Sealy of Barbados, said that while the region is seeing growth in airlift and cruise, increases in visitor numbers and a surge in inventory -- "which means investor confidence is at a good place" -- it is seeing declines in room occupancy and average room rates, which need to be addressed.

"We have to keep a close watch on Zika and terrorism concerns," Wilchcombe said. "We must enhance the collaboration between the private and public public sectors to grow this industry. We have not yet found a way to effectively connect the islands by air. We must keep a closer eye on changing markets and trends and come up with strategies to attract niche visitors and keep them coming back."

Meeting the demands and needs of visitors is a constant challenge, according to Hugh Riley, CTO's secretary general.

"We cannot be complacent," he said. "We must utilize technology to get our message out. Changes keep happening, and we need to move with these changes or get ahead of them."

Riley suggested a larger focus on sports tourism, culinary happenings, festivals and programs that involve interaction between local communities and visitors.

Cuba, of course, came up in discussions and presentations.

"Cuba currently has 63,000 rooms, with another 30,000 planned, but even those may not be enough to handle the numbers of visitors flocking there," Wilchcombe said.

"How can we enhance our relationship with Cuba and develop programs that combine Cuba with other Caribbean destinations? We have to move forward on this."

Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and a first-time speaker at the conference, warned the region to improve its interisland transportation links.

"How do the disparate nations that make up this region market themselves effectively as One Caribbean? How can an effective interisland air network  be set up that surpasses all that the current incumbent Liat achieves?" Rifai asked.

Cash-strapped regional carrier Liat took its lumps from several of its stakeholders from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines who railed against its deteriorating service, lack of dependability, frequent flight cancellations and maintenance issues.

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged the carrier to improve its services to passengers. "There must be a greater sense of humanism in the way you [Liat] conduct your operations," Skerrit said. "Liat has to respect the consumer, the customer and show greater empathy when flights are canceled or delayed."

David Scowsill, president of the World Tourism and Travel Council, urged Caribbean governments to act to remove visa restrictions, reduce aviation taxes and create incentives for open-skies agreements so that low-cost carriers can easily connect islands with one another. 

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