Caribbean Week: CHTA Execs Talk Cuba, Airbnb and More

Curacao // Photo by Joe Pike

NEW YORK - From growing Cuba demand to concerns about Airbnb's impact on the Caribbean hotel business, the top officials of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) met with a small media contingency Wednesday afternoon to discuss all the hot topics Caribbean specialists should be following.

As part of the ongoing Caribbean Week New York celebration, Travel Agent took part in a media luncheon hosted by Frank Comito, chief executive officer and director general of the CHTA; Karolin G. Troubetzkoy, president of the CHTA; and Matt Cooper, chief marketing officer for the CHTA.

Here are the highlights from that conversation. 

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Cuba's Vast Cultural Offerings Putting Pressure on Other Islands

Ever since the U.S. and Cuba began relaxing travel restrictions between the two countries, Travel Agent has wondered why most Caribbean islands felt threatened by the once-forbidden island. 

After all, Cuba is behind the rest of the Caribbean as far as infrastructure and hotel product that Americans have come to expect when they travel. However, the CHTA members we spoke to yesterday told Travel Agent that it is the vast amount of cultural offerings that Cuba has that is making the other islands feel pressure to showcase their own culture. Cooper says the fact that Cuba has so much history and culture, along with the most beaches in the region, is the real cause of concern for many of the islands. 

Troubetzkoy, joined by several members of CHTA's executive committee and prominent regional hoteliers, visited Cuba for meetings with Cuban and international officials during the UNWTO and FITCuba events held in Havana earlier this month.

Troubetzkoy applauded Cuba's Minister of Tourism Manual Marrero Cruz on his opening remarks for the FITCuba event, where he indicated that tourism is a key economic sector critical to Cuba's socioeconomic development.

Marrero cited the range of tourism-related investments that are planned and the need for companies operating in Cuba to consistently provide quality services and authentic experiences while diversifying the tourism product, redefining Cuba's marketing efforts, and reaching out to new markets.

Among the CHTA group's meetings was one with Cuba's Vice Minister of Tourism, Luis Miguel Diaz Sanchez, who expressed a strong desire to see the region cooperate in building a stronger Caribbean brand.

Troubetzkoy noted that the Cuban representatives expressed a desire to establish a Cuban hotel and tourism association and requested models from around the region to assist in developing the best organization for Cuba. 

The CHTA representatives and Cuban tourism leaders agreed that there is much to learn and gain by working together and will follow up on several priority items discussed during their meetings. They also agreed that there are many investment, trade and collaboration opportunities for Caribbean hoteliers and investors in Cuba, and will look at ways to develop this.

"The region has tremendous untapped potential to grow and develop tourism to the greater benefit of its people, governments, and tourism stakeholders. To do this effectively will require an unprecedented level of commitment by the region's public and private sector leaders," said Troubetzkoy. "In that regard, our delegation left Cuba encouraged by the destination's focus and leadership."

CHTA Meets With Airbnb 

Members of the CHTA expressed a strong desire for regulation within Airbnb. Comito says the CHTA met with top Airbnb executives and discussed the need for regulations for Caribbean Airbnb properties. Troubetzkoy told Travel Agent that Airbnb was very receptive and actually noted that the CHTA was more willing to compromise with Airbnb than other organizations have been.

"There was a lot of cooperation [when the CHTA met with Airbnb]," says Troubetzkoy. "There was also an understanding that this needs to happen. They need to be taxed. They need to be regulated."

"I spoke to Chip Conley [head of global hospitality and strategy at Airbnb] at the recent World Tourism Conference and he told me how refreshing it was for us to take this approach," says Comito, "because [Airbnb] is usually approached negatively in most of the jurisdictions it is operating in."

Cooper expressed the need for Airbnb to offer full transparency. After all, if the CHTA is unaware how many Airbnb stays are being booked or how many are being offered in the Caribbean, then they cannot predict how much airlift the region will need to accommodate visitors, Cooper contends. 

Troubetzkoy also noted that each Airbnb property needs to report if there are any mechanical issues, whether it will offer food, and all safety issues and concerns, such as weather and if the height of the balcony meets some hotel safety requirements. 

Comito said each of the CHTA's 32 member destinations are currently compiling a wish list of sorts that they would like Airbnb to comply with. 

Zika Still Being Closely Monitored

As far as growth goes, 2016 was the Caribbean's first flat year since about 2010 and CHTA members are attributing that to concerns about the Zika mosquito virus, as well as the presidential election. CHTA members told us the virus is still being closely monitored and that the CHTA is working with the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to closely monitor and research Zika cases that have surfaced in some Caribbean islands. 

LGBT Market Needs to Be Addressed 

LGBT travel to the Caribbean is a sensitive topic of conversation, since many religiously rooted islands haven't exactly embraced the many new same-sex laws passed in the U.S. and elsewhere. But Troubetzkoy, who is from St. Lucia, perhaps one of the most religiously rooted islands in the Caribbean, said the issue needs to be discussed among the CHTA.

"It has to be addressed. Some of these laws that are still on the books need to be addressed," says Troubetzkoy, referring some outdated laws in some Caribbean islands that call for same-sex couples to be imprisoned.

Troubetzkoy says not talking about it or ignoring it has made the LGBT discussion an even more awkward one.

"The perception that this is an issue has created this discomfort when talking about it," she says, "and we need to fix that."

Visit www.caribbeanhotelandtourism.com and www.caribbeantravel.com. Keep visiting www.travelagentcentral.com for all your latest Caribbean news and be sure to follow Travel Agent's Joe Pike on Twitter @TravelPike.

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