Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit

It seems like just yesterday that I attended my first Caribbean Week in New York City. It was my second day on the job with Travel Agent, and I was introduced to perhaps one of the most hectic trade shows the region can muster up, but also the most newsworthy.

More than two years later, and under a different name, the Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit (ACTS) is still considered one of the Caribbean’s most influential trade conferences of the year.

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The opening ceremony of the Annual Caribbean Tourism Summit

And during a time of substantial flight suspensions to the region and, of course, rising fuel costs, one can argue that this might be the most important Caribbean conference since the aftermath of 9/11.

Travel Agent staff used to walk to the former Caribbean Week in New York City, but this year we flew to the revamped conference’s new venue, The International Trade Center at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

The good news is that we returned with just as much—if not more—Caribbean news to share with you. Here’s a roundup of everything a Caribbean specialist should know about the first ACTS.

Alphabet Soup
Okay, before we start throwing out acronym after acronym, allow us to first provide agents with a quick Caribbean tourism refresher. Forgive us if you’re a seasoned Caribbean specialist who knows this already, but we figured we’d avoid any confusion.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA) previously held events separately and never worked together in coordinating a trade show or conference. However, this event was hosted by the recently formed Caribbean Tourism and Development Company (CTDC), which comprises both the public and private sectors, and members of the CTO and the CHA.

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Sen. Allen Chastanet, chairman of CTO

Caribbean Asks Congress to Lift Travel Restrictions
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of the summit came from the event’s closing press conference during which Sen. Allen Chastanet, chairman of the CTO, told media that delegates had met with Congress and asked it to waive the $40 requirement Caribbean travelers currently incur when vacationing. Delegates also asked that duty-free allowances be raised, and that there be more pre-clearance facilities in the Caribbean. The last request was perhaps the most significant, because it would shrink crowds at airports and in turn may result in more flights to the region. This is important considering that anticipated suspension of flights by such carriers as American Airlines and American Eagle in September will result in a 20 percent reduction of seats (or 1.4 million) to the Caribbean.

New Air Lift
The biggest flight news came from Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company announced more details about a plan to replace about half of the flights Puerto Rico will lose when American Airlines’ and American Eagle’s suspension of flights takes effect this fall. Airlines, including JetBlue, Air Tran, Continental and Delta, have added service to Puerto Rico from such major cities as New York, Boston, Newark, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. The dates of the flights haven’t been announced yet, but some are slated to begin in September, overlapping with the date of the suspended flights by AA and AE, Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila says. The September suspension of flights by some major carriers represents a 20 percent reduction (1.2 million seats) to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has also been in talks with Spirit Airlines to reach an agreement that will result in additional flights between San Juan, Orlando and New York.

Montserrat made a splash at ACTS by announcing the addition of Carib Aviation Limited flights from Antigua. The new daily service was officially slated to start on July 1. Flights depart V.C. Bird International Airport in Antigua as early as 8:20 a.m. and will return from Gerald’s Airport in Montserrat as late as 5 p.m.

Dominica also announced the addition of new flights from St. Lucia. The daily service would connect St. Lucia’s Herwanorra Airport and Dominica’s Canefield Airport. Flights will depart Dominica at 12:10 p.m., arriving in St. Lucia at 12:55 p.m. The return flight will leave St. Lucia at 4:05 p.m., arriving at Dominica at 4:50 p.m. The new flights will allow connections to and from various major hubs such as Miami, New York, Atlanta, Toronto and the UK.

New CHA President Enrique De Marchena Kaluche
We’ve tried long and hard to score an interview with new CHA President Enrique De Marchena Kaluche and as luck would have it, he eventually came to us. The newly sworn-in president was conducting an interview in the pressroom of the International Trade Center.

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CHA President Enrique De Marchena Kaluche

De Marchena Kaluche, who was officially sworn into office on the first day of the conference (after being elected roughly a year ago), told us, “It’s been a long time coming. Now, I’m ready to do what needs to be done. It’s a challenging time, but I’m ready for it.”

De Marchena Kaluche will serve from now through 2010, which is anticipated to be a crucial time for fixing some of the region’s ongoing flight problems, as well as its lack of regional marketing. He told me that the CTDC was slated to discuss the possibility of forming the first-ever regional marketing fund.

The fund would involve the pooling of money from the individual members of the CTO and CHA to promote the region as a whole. No further details have been announced as of press time. Although De Marchena Kaluche expects members to be receptive to the idea, he is aware that the actual planning of such a historic fund could be a challenge. “It’s easy for everyone to say ‘yes’ to the idea, but not as easy when we are establishing a mechanism and funding strategy,” he said.

De Marchena Kaluche also stressed the importance of lowering flight costs to attract more airlift to the region.

Puerto Rico Extends Cruise Incentive Program, Adds Flights
Gov. Vila talked about the passing of a law to expand his administration’s Cruise Incentive Program, which allocates a yearly $10 million fund for the development of Puerto Rico’s maritime industry. If the expansion results in a 20 percent increase in cruise arrivals by June 30, 2011, Vila told the media, these incentives will automatically be extended to June 30, 2014.

Passport Issue Revisited
About a year and a half after the implementation of U.S. passport requirements to the Caribbean, officially labeled the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, Travel Agent revisited the issue to see if it was still a threat to Caribbean travel and found a pretty mixed reaction.

Although some tourism officials feel the worst is over, they said the first-time requirements that all U.S. travelers have a passport when traveling to the Caribbean will continue to have an impact on the region for years to come.

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Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, minister of tourism for the Bahamas

Others, including the CTO’s secretary general/CEO at the time of the conference and recently named minister of tourism for the Bahamas, Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, say the restrictions may actually cause an influx of travel to the Caribbean in the long run.

According to Vanderpool-Wallace, there were an unexpected number of U.S. citizens who went and got a passport when the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) first passed the law for air travelers in January 2007.

The DOT’s predicted number of people who would get a passport was based on statistics on how many people traveled to the Caribbean annually. The DOT, however, didn’t expect to also see a large number of people apply who have never traveled a day in their lives before. Therefore, there was a logjam and major delays for passports, forcing the government to make exceptions by issuing temporary visas and passports for people who needed to travel soon.

With that said, Vanderpool-Wallace anticipates that the people who have never traveled, and received their passport simply because the government told them they needed one, will choose the Caribbean as their first destination.

“They never thought that people who never traveled before would get their passport, but people like having the items their government requires of them in the event that perhaps they would one day like to travel,” Vanderpool-Wallace told us during a one-on-one interview at ACTS. “We’re hoping that since we are one of the closest destinations [for U.S. travelers], these new travelers will pick us as their first destination. So, maybe, when this is all said and done, we may see an increase in travel to the Caribbean. Something that initially hurt us may actually help us in the long term.”

Chastanet, however, seemed just as disappointed with the new restrictions as he was when they were first enforced. “We always believed the reason why the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada were previously given the privilege of not needing a passport to travel to was because we bordered America,” he said. “But we plan on talking to Congress about that.”

Greenspan Says Caribbean Must Be Patient
The ACTS keynote speaker, Dr. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board from 1987-2006, told delegates not to expect a quick tourism boom in the Caribbean during a struggling U.S economy. Rather, be patient and treat investments in the region as a long-term process, he says. Greenspan says the Caribbean will not see a dramatic spike in investment in the next two to three years, but instead needs to prove it can produce a return for the next 10 to 15 years before the money “flows there.”

“Don’t pound on doors and say, ‘You have to come to the Caribbean for vacations,’” he said. “People will slam their doors. You have to show them data and results, and people will come.”

What was also telling from Greenspan’s comments was his flat-out admission that oil will never go back to its price prior to the surging spikes the world has seen in recent years. “Oil will never go back to $20 per barrel,” Greenspan asserted. “We’ll see ever-increasing jet prices, but even more fuel-efficient jet engines.”

Greenspan emphasized that the destinations worldwide that are the most attractive to investors are those in which the rule of law is the strongest, noting that safety is the linchpin of a strong infrastructure. “Capital moves to areas that are safe,” he said.

Despite the challenges the tourism industry faces, Greenspan advised, “We tourists will find a way to get there.”

Attendance and Plans for Next Year
The final tally of delegates was 320. Chastanet was pleased with the attendance, but expects it to grow next year. “When we meet to decide where we will have this next year, I will recommend that we keep it [in Washington, D.C],” he says. “We got so much done here this year, but there are still a lot of doors that need to be opened.” At the event’s closing reception, Hugh Riley, CTO’s director of marketing for the Americas, told us that the brainstorming process for next year’s keynote speaker hasn’t begun and probably won’t commence for a few months or so.

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