The Wall Street Journal / November 18, 1998
By Larry Luxner
The Caribbean islands depend on tourist dollars more than any other place in the world, with one out of every three people in the region making a living from hotels, cruise ships, airlines, taxis and restaurants that cater to visitors.
But the $15 billion in annual tourism revenues won't keep flowing unless the Caribbean takes steps to diversify its product offering, says Jean Holder, secretary-general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
"The overall challenge for Caribbean tourism is its sustainability," Mr. Holder said in a phone interview last week from Barbados, where the CTO is headquartered.
"For 1998, we don't see any immediate major problems, because the U.S. market is still very sound, and we seen some elements of recovery in Germany, France and the U.K.," he explained. "But there's a certain uncertainty in the marketplace that in the medium term we could see some slackening of demand."
Mr. Holder said the CTO had been predicting an annual growth rate of about 4.6% over the next 10 years, with the number of stayover tourists doubling from the current 14.5 million to around 29 million. "In the context of recent happenings, we will review that level of growth, though we believe the tourism sector is extremely resilient and in the past has survived the energy crisis of 1973-74, the recession of the early 1980s and the Gulf War."
The CTO represents 32 countries and dependent territories in the Caribbean, including all 15 members of Caricom.
"The biggest draw for the Caribbean is still beaches and climate. But we have to diversify the product. Once tourists get here, they want to be able to do other things. A lot of our countries are now pursuing a variety of niche products," he said, naming Barbados and Aruba as "two good examples of mature tourism."
Ranked by absolute numbers alone, Puerto Rico is the Caribbean's most popular travel destination, with 4.1 million tourists in 1996. Other big tourist draws are the Bahamas (3.4 million); the Dominican Republic (2.04 million); Jamaica (1.8 million), the U.S. Virgin Islands (1.77 million) and the Netherlands Antilles (1.6 million).
At the other end of the spectrum are lesser-known destinations like Guyana (171,000 visitors in 1996); the Turks & Caicos Islands (88,000), Suriname (84,000) and Montserrat (16,000). To attract more tourist dollars, some of these countries are pushing ecotourism. Guyana, for example, is promoting package tours to its vast, largely unexplored interior, where more adventurous tourists can visit Amerindian villages and natural wonders such as 741-foot-high Kaieteur Falls, the largest single-drop waterfall in the world.
Mr. Holder says he doesn't believe an eventual lifting of the U.S. embargo against Cuba will divert American tourists from such traditional island meccas like Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Bermuda.
"The Dominican Republic has grown from about 10,000 to 34,000 rooms in the last 10 years. That's extraordinary growth," he said. "Cuba has grown somewhat less than that, but neither of those countries have a major U.S. market."