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PHOTOS BY ASHLEY ANGUIN - Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett (right) sits in the audience listening to the various presentations.
Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Jennifer Griffiths, (right) and other members of the audience.
Two members of the audience deeply engrossed in the UNWTO Conference.

Caribbean future rests in diffrentiation

Tourism stakeholders and professionals have underscored the need for the Caribbean to look more keenly at innovation and differentiating its offerings in order to broaden its share of the tourism market.

The Caribbean currently enjoys only five per cent of the world market, the stakeholders said, although many of the islands in the region are dependent on the industry as a source of income. At the same time, tourism accounts for 15 per cent of the region's gross domestic product and 13 per cent of employment.

The stakeholders and professionals were part of a panel discussing titled 'The Future of Tourism at the Global Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth: Partnerships for Sustainable Development' at the Montego Bay Convention Centre on Monday.

The conference was hosted by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), World Bank Group, Inter-American Development Bank and the Ministry of Tourism, with major sponsorship from Airbnb, AM Resorts, Chukka Cove, The Jamaica National Group and Sandals Resorts International.

Pointing to the rise of Airbnb in the Caribbean, which offers tourists an opportunity to experience their stay in an authentic community setting, Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and travel editor Peter Greenburg argued that the rise of Airbnb was a result of an unfilled gap by brand-name large hotel chains.

"You can't depend on branding to solve your problem. You can't depend on messaging to solve your problem. The new travellers are demanding something else. They are demanding an authentic, genuine experience, they are demanding differentiation," he emphasised.

Greenburg said players need to look beyond infrastructure and marketing programmes, and focus on "emotional assets" in order to create a new experience for visitors.

"How many of you get emotionally excited about staying in a big brand?" he asked the approximately 1,300 registered conference attendants. "How many of you can't wait to get there, other than the fact that you're a member of their loyalty programme, or you're going to a convention and that hotel is located directly next to the convention centre? Those days are coming to an end, and if you don't differentiate ... you will not be prepared," he said.

As factual as Greenburg's suggestions were, executive director of the UNWTO, Carlos Voegel, feels that although digital platforms have made it easier for people to identify community-based experiences in tourism, he cautioned that it raises visitor-resident relationship issues that need to be managed.

"I believe that is one of the challenges that we will face in the very near future," he said.

He agreed, however, that beyond expanding the types of accommodations available, Caribbean states need to embrace innovation to gain a competitive edge.

"We need to compete in a different way ... . We need to respond to the tourist of the future, not the tourist of the present or the past," he said, noting that multi-destination tourism has to become part of the consideration by Caribbean countries.

According to the UNWTO official, the modern tourist is informed and demanding and, therefore, the sector needs to be prepared for them. He, however, argued that the need for growth must be balanced to ensure the region achieves sustainability.

The comments by both men were bolstered by Karolin Troubetzkoy, president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourist Association, who gave another perspective of the importance of the region fostering entrepreneurism in the tourism sector in order to encourage the development of more small enterprises that will diversify the visitor experience.

"I hope that [by] opening up to more types of travellers, we will see the emergence of more accommodation choices as part of the diversification of the product itself," she stated.

She argued that there was no lack of innovation in the Caribbean, pointing to the existence of strong expertise in tourism throughout the region.

"However, there is a lack of capacity that Caribbean countries struggle with in terms of academic research. We have a lack of buy-in because we don't have enough research to showcase to our stakeholders the important role tourism could play to drive all economies forward," she said. 

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