The 15th annual Youth Congress, the closing session of last week's Caribbean Tourism Organization's (CTO) State of the Industry Conference in Grenada was, as one CTO official put it, "freaking awesome."
On stage were 10 Caribbean students, between 14 and 17 years old, who shared their ideas about the future of Caribbean tourism during a spirited exchange in front of a highly receptive audience and a panel of three judges. These teenagers, six girls and four boys, had been selected as "junior ministers of tourism" in their home countries after a series of schoolwide competitions that tested their research, essay and public speaking skills earlier in the year.
Now at the CTO conference, they were up before seasoned tourism professionals, tasked with "informing, enlightening, delighting and surprising" their audience and judges while vying for the coveted honor to be named as Youth Ambassador for the Caribbean for a year.
The judges included a tourism director from St. Eustasius; a official from the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and a CTO business development representative from Canada and evaluated students' responses to questions based on knowledge of topic, presentation style, use of audio-visual aids and ability to think on their feet.
The students had been instructed to prepare a three-minute address showcasing their country in one area of five areas (heritage, music culture, sports or food) and then minutes later deliver a one-minute speech on a surprise topic.
The student's on-stage director was Gabriel Josephs from the Bahamas, last year's Youth Congress winner.
Grenada's Jovani John said he'd promote talks on climate change, encourage visits to the underwater sculpture park and create more artificial reef structures. Martinique's Coraline Pain highlighted the Yole boat-building industry on her island, which also has "the best rums in the world."
"I'd promote crabbing for land crabs and taking a cruise to the Family Islands because there is nothing more authentic than how those people live," said Michael Wallace from the Bahamas.
Jada Hope from Barbados designed a self-guided island tour narrated by a "Wonder Woman" character she created on a Power Point presentation while Zaria Ingham from Turks & Caicos pitched an Adopt an Iguana program because "they're like prehistoric dinosaurs and are indigenous here."
Francis Alexander from St. Lucia came up with what he called Renovation Treetopia, "a new concept with hanging tree tents at the base of the Pitons, a place where the kid in you comes out."
On the surprise topic, each youth picked a topic randomly from a basket and had one minute to prepare thoughts.
On how tourism contributes to making the Caribbean a better place, Devonne Cornelius from Nevis, said: "Tourism is the bread and butter of the Caribbean. It brings us together and makes all of us better people."
Delegates were asked how they would support recovery efforts in the region.
"I would open up schools on other islands so students could come from islands where their schools were damaged and they could continue their education," said Jeheime Llewelyn, Jamaica.
"I would market and promote voluntourism," said Le-An Telesford of Trinidad & Tobago.
"I would organize fund-raising campaigns," said Grenada's Jovani.
All of the ideas, views, suggestions and recommendations were fresh, candid and at times blunt.
The three judges admitted their decision was difficult, given the delegates' eloquent and passionate presentations, but taking top prize as the Caribbean Youth Ambassador for the next year was 15-year-old Francis from Choiseul, St. Lucia, whose animated spirit, delivery and social presence were as bright as his yellow shirt, bought by his mom.
As Youth Ambassador, Francis will attend regional conferences, including the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association Marketplace in San Juan in January, Caribbean Week in New York in June and next year's CTO conference in the Bahamas; emcee festivals and events on various islands; tour hotels and ports and attractions; and hobnob with tourism and government leaders.
"My mom's not here, but I can't wait to call her," he said. "I am so excited."
Me too. All 10 of those young people represent the future of tourism in the Caribbean.