One sea, one voice, one Caribbean
Business View Caribbean interviews Hugh Riley, Secretary General/CEO of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), for our focus on the Caribbean Tourism Sector.
Created in 1989, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) is the region’s intergovernmental tourism development agency, with 24 Dutch, English, Spanish, and French country members and over 250 private sector, allied members. The CTO’s vision is to position the Caribbean as the most desirable, year- round, warm weather destination. Its purpose and guiding beacon is “Leading Sustainable Tourism – One Sea, One Voice, One Caribbean.”
In a recent interview with Business View Caribbean, the CTO Secretary General and CEO, Hugh Riley, shared valuable insights into the operations of the Organization and how tourism is evolving and growing as the leading industry in the Caribbean. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
BVC: How is the Caribbean Tourism Organization funded and what services do you provide your members?
Riley: “Even though the government is the nucleus of the organization, we also represent a fairly large body of private sector tourism interests. The Caribbean Tourism Organization is primarily funded by membership dues for services we provide – literally, every service a country needs to promote and develop itself as a tourism destination. That includes research and IT, standards and certification, training across the region, creating curricula, conferences and events, sustainable tourism development programs and, of course, marketing.
“For those services, member countries pay annual dues calculated by a simple, equitable formula that takes into account the number of visitors and the amount of revenue derived from that country’s tourism sector. So, tiny St. Eustatius doesn’t pay the same as the Bahamas. Those dues are our main source of income. We also sell services and materials/data, and charge for training and research projects.
“About 10 percent of the money we manage comes from external sources outside the Caribbean. We scour the world for project funding from places like the European Union, or the InterAmerican Development Bank, or other sources. Those funds don’t go to the bottom line, they go towards providing activities and services our members need in areas such as cultural heritage, capacity building, climate change adaptation, or disaster mitigation. It’s useful funding for individual countries that wouldn’t be eligible for it on their own.”
BVC: What are the biggest challenges for the Caribbean tourism sector?
Riley: “The biggest challenge is competition. Competitive forces are active and aggressive – travel and tourism is the leading industry, and everybody is in it. So, we need to organize ourselves to make an impact on how we market the Caribbean brand. Our responsibility, as the CTO, is to keep the brand active, visible, and strong, and our image, positive, out there in the world. Our competitors have larger budgets and we are a collection of relatively small countries in the Caribbean but, cumulatively, if we pool the resources to market the Caribbean brand effectively, that gives us the best chance we’ll ever have to cut through the global clutter.
“Perception is another major challenge. Last year, when two category five hurricanes came through the Caribbean, 25 to 30 percent of our countries were affected. But information in the public domain wasn’t making that clear enough. People overseas got the impression that the whole region was affected and the Caribbean was to be avoided. Sometimes people forget that a natural disaster is also an image disaster. If we created the funding mechanism to allow us to market the Caribbean effectively, the last thing a country in recovery would have to worry about is finding the money to repair the image created by a disaster. We don’t do a good enough job, ourselves, to get the word out about the geography of the Caribbean and the special relationship among our countries.
“People don’t understand that the population of the Caribbean is bigger than that of Canada, and we’re spread out over a million square miles of territory. During Hurricane Maria, Ragged Island in the Bahamas was compulsorily evacuated by the government, yet people in Nassau barely new it happened because there is 100,000 sq. miles in the Bahamas, alone.”
BVC: How do you market the Caribbean as a destination, post-hurricanes?
Riley: “We, the Caribbean Tourism Organization, have a joint venture with a private sector organization, CHTA (Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association). That public-private partnership just launched a campaign called ‘The Rhythm Never Stops’ – based on the fact that you come to the Caribbean to find your rhythm. Nothing really stops us. One of the things we’ve learned in the last while is that we can handle the sensitivity of how to say which countries are open for business, which are not, and which are on the road to recovery.
“Those sensitivities are handled quite neatly when the affected countries tell the rest of the Caribbean, ‘We know what we need to do to recover. While we do that, please do what you can to get and keep the business here in the Caribbean.’ That happened to a huge extent last fall. If you look at the arrival numbers, a lot of non-affected countries saw increases in business for the first part of 2018, although, the deficit created by the affected countries was also very strong because they’ve lost room stock and momentum and it takes time to rebuild. So, it will be an absolute challenge by Dec. 31, this year, to meet that 30 million arrivals mark we hit in 2017.”
BVC: How will the Caribbean Tourism Organization continue to be a viable voice for members over the next five years?
Riley: “Just recently, the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Tourism Industry Conference (SOTIC) at Paradise Island, Bahamas featured a key session on ‘Modernizing the Experience: Using Technology to Enhance the Visitor Experience.’ The discussion covered a broad range of applications from customer-centric hospitality models leveraging technology, to the way industry leaders are using mobile and virtual reality innovations to differentiate brand identity. In the coming months, the CTO will continue to develop an agenda which encourages and assists member states’ efforts to create digitally-enhanced tourism services via entrepreneurship and innovation.
“It is our firm belief that more efficient resource management will empower our local communities and help build a truly inclusive tourism sector. Tourism must bring benefits to all members of our society. Emerging digital technologies provide a range of new tools that can tackle challenges faced throughout our member states, increase profitability, and bring about positive change for stakeholders that will improve the quality of life for all Caribbean people.
“The CTO has a tremendous amount of direct contact with the people of the Caribbean. Overseas, our contact tends to be at the level of the trade industry – airlines, tour operators, travel agents – but the consumers don’t really know about us. However, here in the Caribbean, we spend a huge amount of time, energy, and resources making sure the region is the best we can be in terms of human resources.
“We need to attract the best and the brightest to the industry that’s driving our economies. The CTO has awarded over $1 million in University scholarships for tourism studies. But, we also make sure it is taught from the primary school level up in many of our countries, so that students who don’t have the opportunity to go to a tertiary level institution, at least have an understanding of what the industry is about from the ground up, as well as how to get into it and how to perfect it.
“We all have to understand how to be good hosts because that’s the business we’re in. My point is that even though the CTO is seen elsewhere as a trade organization, at home in the Caribbean, we have a great amount of close contact with the people here – and we love that!”
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