On Site: How the Caribbean Can Follow in Colombia’s Footsteps

The Caribbean has a lot to learn from Colombia. That was the theme of the Global Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth – Small and Medium Tourism Enterprises, one of the opening events at the Caribbean Travel Marketplace held January 29 – 31 at the Montego Bay Convention Centre in Jamaica. Former Colombia president Álvaro Uribe Vélez addressed attendees as the keynote speaker of the event, which was hosted by the United Nations World Tourism Organization in partnership with the Government of Jamaica.

The event was intended to discuss how to help smaller tourism businesses, from as few as one to three people up to 100 people. With roughly 40 percent of the Caribbean’s GDP dependent on tourism, and with one in five workers belonging to the tourism sector (both according to Jamaica Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett), maintaining and improving the region’s tourism offerings is a top priority.

Bartlett says Uribe “changed the face and image of [Colombia] during its most turbulent years, transformed the fortunes of the small and medium enterprises, and brought the ‘little man’ into the mainstream of the economic communities of his country.” According to Bartlett, 80 percent of tourism is owned by small-, micro- and medium-sized enterprises, but 80 percent of the returns go to the large businesses that own the remaining 20 percent.

“But [Uribe] did something else that was very special and for which we really wanted to celebrate him today,” Bartlett adds. “He showed us how a tourism community could really be inclusive, and how the linkages that tourism forges could enable everyone to have a place and to be inclusive in the growth process.”

Uribe drove tremendous growth in the tourism sector in his country during his time in office (2002 to 2010), which has continued in the years since. When he took office, there were just over 500,000 international visitors to the region, and Uribe announced that in 2018, the region received six million. He added that hotel room numbers jumped from 18,000 to over 200,000 in that same span. One of his crowing achievements, however, according to Bartlett, was his ability “to bring the ordinary citizen of Cartagena to be a supplier in the value chain of tourism.” It’s something the Caribbean wishes to imitate—hence the event.

To achieve this, Uribe spoke about how he first had to instill confidence in Colombians in their country and their product, as Colombia wasn’t seen as a potential destination for much of the world—in fact, it was seen as dangerous (something certain regions of the Caribbean have dealt with). The confidence natives began showing in themselves and their product then transferred to potential visitors, Uribe says. A side effect of this confidence was that it also helped drive domestic tourism, which Uribe says was next to nonexistent.

While president, Uribe implemented several programs, such as tax relief for new hotels, a fund that was to be used to invest in tourism, and a project aimed to instruct Colombians how to host international tourists. Colombia was also at the forefront of the “live like a local” style of travel. Uribe spoke about how the government helped lower-income families expand their houses to receive tourists, showing them their way of life. (These were many of the participants of the program aimed at learning to host travelers.) The current president, Ivan Duque, has continued some of these efforts, introducing tax benefits for small tourism enterprises.

Ultimately, Bartlett has three goals for Jamaica and the greater Caribbean with regards to tourism:

  • To define a path that will enable the vision and the promise of inclusiveness for the industry of tourism to begin to be realized
  • To bring bring the region's leaders and employees together to create a synergy that enables the transformation from concept and ideas into material goods and services that have a value to their people
  • To ensure that this comes together cohesively, as this idea will not work when there is huge disparity between the owners of the product and those who are the marketers

The good news is the Caribbean in 2019 sees far more visitors and has a better perception as a destination than Colombia did in 2002. Nonetheless, the region still sees plenty of room for improvement and growth—with Uribe’s ideas as a driving force.

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