CANCUN, Mexico -- It was no surprise that technology and the Internet dominated the annual Caribbean Hotel Industry Conference, hosted by the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) last month here.

In general sessions, roundtable debates and in workshops, talks centered on distribution channels, search engines and Web-based business opportunities.

Global competition, service standards, environmental issues and marketing strategies also were debated and discussed.

In a speech widely praised by conference delegates as "long overdue and to the point," Ed Malone, outgoing CHA president, warned that technological developments have turned the tourism industry "into a global fully connected destination in which many regions and countries now challenge the past dominance of the Caribbean as the leading warm weather destination."

Although Malone cited bureaucratic incompetence, lack of professional tourism management and the "ongoing soap opera of island politics" for the area's lack of progress in tourism development and profitability, he also chided the private sector for its failure to effect substantial changes in governmental attitudes and policies.

He called on the industry as a whole -- hotels, governments "and yes, even the cruise lines" -- to work together to not only recognize tourism "as the lifeblood for the economic future of this region," but also to place tourism as the highest priority on all agendas.

Malone pushed for governments to convene a public/private-sector summit to reignite a Caribbean regional marketing campaign, create uniform standards and branding, remove visa restrictions, enhance intra-Caribbean transportation, standardize entry and departure documentation and establish a regional cruise tourism policy and tariffs.

He had harsh words for governments that ignored cruise lines as a source of tax revenues.

"While our tax structures change and in many cases increase, cruise lines continue to escape similar tax adjustments, simply because the politicians are scared that the lines will sail off at the expense of votes in an upcoming election," he said.

Both Malone and Ralph Taylor, CHA's new president, called for an end to the U.S. ban on Cuba trade.

"We are not afraid of an open tourism market in Cuba and would welcome the hoteliers of Cuba into CHA without the restraints now imposed on them by the embargo," Malone said.

Taylor noted that the embargo "has not stopped economics. We need to support Cuba in its fight for real and open trade."

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