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12 October, 2010 - Published 15:10 GMT

Tourism's new way forward?

Wanted: new ideas to give new dynamism to the Caribbean's most important industry - tourism.

The inter-governmental Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) tried to seek answers by gathering influential planners to assess the state of the industry which has been struggling during the global economic crisis.

The immediate outlook remains uncertain.

New CTO chairman Ricky Skerritt, the tourism minister of St Kitts and Nevis, said arrivals by air were beginning to rebound in the region, though more slowly than predicted from some markets.

CTO statistics show that of the 18 countries reporting up to June at least, only three had experienced declines.

In its latest assessment, the International Monetary Fund said economic growth in most Caribbean countries will be subdued partly because of weak prospects for tourism and remittances.

Air transport

The Barbados acting Prime Minister, Freundel Stuart, in addressing the conference, said the provision of adequate air transport remained a difficult issue for the Caribbean.

He said: "For most of our countries, unable by reason of the cost factor to own an airline, the acquisition of reliable and competitively priced airlift with adequate geographic spread, becomes a key issue upon which policymakers are force to cogitate."

When it comes to intra-regional market dominated in the southern Caribbean by Liat, air fares has been a perennial concern.

A Barbados-based start-up carrier, Airone, believes it has seen a niche based on a low-cost model that it will unveil 1 December.

Tax issues

CEO Ian Burns told the conference that the company planned to make intra-regional travel "affordable, accessible and profitable" through a low-fare, no-frills model with fares starting at US$9.99.

Liat's CEO expressed his doubts about the proposal but he shared Mr Burn's views about the "burden" of multiple regulation and taxation across several countries.

He reiterated a point made by Caribbean countries - that the region suffers disproportionately
because of the distance banding on which the tax is calculated.

Mr Walsh said: "Since last November, when APD to the Caribbean went up from £120 ($191) for a family of four to £200 ($319), arrivals from Britain have fallen by 12% (and by as much as 25% on some islands).

"Some of this sudden drop could be attributed to economic recession, but it seems clear that APD has played a major part, because the majority of Caribbean countries have seen larger decreases from the UK than from anywhere in Europe."

Revenues

Mr Walsh also contended that the tax massively overstated the carbon impact of flights to the Caribbean.

The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme has the potential to be even more devastating, he said.

"... We are fully aware that in the long term these measures will even more seriously undermine Caribbean tourism growth," Mr Stuart added.

Even though arrival numbers may be increasing, revenues are not necessarily keeping pace as discounting has taken place to attract visitors.

Infrastructure

The region was advised by one specialist that it should therefore focus shift marketing from the all-inclusive traveller to the higher revenue independent traveller.

"You have to chase money, not arrivals," said David Redekop, principal research associate of the Conference Board of Canada.

In the end, the Caribbean's continuing success will depend on the service it delivers to the visitor.

"To be successful and competitive ... requires a captivating and safe destination experience, convenient and affordable airlift, a more sophisticated tourism infrastructure and a marketing strategy that is carefully targeted ...," said CTO chairman Skerritt.