FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — News of the resolution ending the partial shutdown of the U.S. government was greeted with a sense of relief by tourism officials attending the Caribbean Tourism Organization's (CTO) annual State of the Industry conference here last week.
The U. S. Virgin Islands — St. John, in particular — experienced the shutdown directly, since two-thirds of that island is a national park. Tourists arriving there in the first week of the 16-day shutdown found beaches barred by chains, hiking trails closed and even the visitors center off-limits.
"Fortunately, a deal was struck after the first seven days with the National Park Service, and … the park was reopened to visitors," said Richard Doumeng, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association and owner of Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas.
This was not a minor event, he said.
"The livelihood of an entire island was at stake," Doumeng said. "Trunk Bay [part of Virgin Islands National Park] is a favorite attraction for cruise passengers in particular, and closure of that beach with its underwater snorkeling trail dealt a serious blow to our tourism and had a ripple effect on vendors at the beach, watersports operators, concessionaires near the park and even the ferry operators whose passenger numbers were down between St. Thomas and St. John."
Bahamas tourism officials feared that winter vacation plans would have been postponed or canceled had the shutdown gone on much longer.
"Discretionary income for travel would have been lost by people furloughed by the shutdown," said one Ministry of Tourism official. "No paychecks mean that travel plans go on the back burner, and mortgage payments and bills would take top priority."
Although CTO Chair Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who serves as U.S. Virgin Islands commissioner of tourism, did not allude directly to the government shutdown in her opening address, she pulled no punches in warning her colleagues that the Caribbean region will face its own shutdown of sorts if it continues on a path of complacency about collective tourism marketing.
"Lip service can no longer be the order of our days," she said.
She pointed out that in the aftermath of many Caribbean conferences, well-intentioned rhetoric soon is forgotten, adding, "As a region, we're big on lyrics but slow on implementation."
The slogan "One Sea, One Voice, One Caribbean," she said, "cannot just be a feel-good slogan or a tagline that we embrace when we meet a few times a year. It must be our strategic marketing reality if we are to survive the aggressive marketing efforts of major global destinations."
The region's tourism industry, she asserted, lacks the political will to move regional marketing along fast enough to ensure the region remains competitive as the most sought-after warm-weather destination.
She singled out Brand USA as an example of successfully implementing "a concept we have been discussing in the Caribbean for more than a decade. Brand USA has the data now that shows that travel to the U.S. has increased since the program's implementation."
Although proof exists that arrivals increase when the Caribbean does pull off a cohesive marketing program, Nicholson-Doty said, "We seem only to have the will to truly work together when there is a crisis."
Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly.