Above: Union Island, St Vincent and the Grenadines (CJ Photo)
By Alexander Britell
MIAMI — The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada remain the primary source markets for Caribbean tourism — but with the global tourism market getting more and more competitive, that will likely start to shift in the years to come.
As more Caribbean countries, out of necessity, look to diversify their origin markets, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa “continue to show great potential as new tourism source markets for the Caribbean,” Caribbean Tourism Organization Board of Directors Chairman Chantal Figueroa wrote in a message last week to begin Caribbean Tourism Month.
The question is how to tap into them.
For Keith Nurse, a tourism expert and the executive director of the UWI Consulting Company in Jamaica, there are several major challenges in attracting the BRICS —notably airlift and marketing — but each source market has its own challenges.
Last month, British Virgin Islands Premier Dr Orlando Smith led a high-profile tourism delegation to Brazil. It was the latest in a series of early-stage efforts in the Caribbean to begin to capitalize on what has become the economic engine of Latin America.
Brazil has perhaps the most potential of any of the BRICS for Caribbean tourism, in large part due to its relative proximity to the region, Nurse said.
“Brazil is closer, and the Brazilian middle class is venturing out into the Caribbean,” Nurse told Caribbean Journal. “So it’s doable from that framework.”
But for now, the key to Brazil may be Panama.
While Brazil’s GOL does operate nonstop flights to Barbados twice a week (and service from Sao Paulo to Santo Domingo and Punta Cana), it can also be accessed with connections through Panama on COPA — which now flies to destinations including Nassau, Montego Bay, Port of Spain, Punta Cana and Curacao, among others.
On that front, Barbados in particular been pushing ties with COPA, and a flight from Panama City to Bridgetown could soon be a reality, Tourism Minister Richard Sealy said last year, with the goal, undoubtedly, of harnessing Brazilian tourists just a pair of flights away. And COPA doubled its flights to Jamaica for the winter season.
But Brazil is a different kind of market than that to whcih the Caribbean is traditionally accustomed, Nurse said, and it will be crucial to tailor offerings and marketing to cater to Brazilians.
“It can’t be standard sun, sand and sea, you have to package more events-related tourism packages, a tournament or a particular festival,” he said. “These are the things we should be marketing to these territories to drive the demand.”
Russia’s travel to the Caribbean has been steadily growing.
Earlier this year, the Dominican Republic’s tourism ministry said it was seeing a “massive arrival” of Russian tourists, with around 164,000 in 2012. That was the fifth-largest amount of visitors from any country to the Dominican Republic, and the trend has actually strengthened thus far in 2013, according to the government.
That represents a departure for Russian tourists, who had largely limited their Caribbean travel to Cuba in recent years.
It’s not just the Dominican Republic, though — Jamaica has been slowly attracting more Russians, most recently with the arrival of a new nonstop flight from Moscow via Transaero this past weekend.
As for India, the most natural fit is Trinidad and Tobago, with which it has deep cultural and historical ties. In April, Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines said it would be strengthening its relationship with Air India, with plans for a code-sharing agreement.
When the airline tapped cricket legend Brian Lara as its global ambassador, it was as much for his fame in the region as it was for the extreme popularity of cricket in the Subcontinent. (And Trinidad and Tobago does specific marketing for the Indian market with an office in Mumbai).
“Air connection is the biggest challenge,” Nurse said.
China represents the holy grail of the BRICS — or so it would seem, with the growth of a middle class unparalleled in history.
But for China, which has been increasingly deepening its ties with the Caribbean in recent years, Nurse said the challenge was twofold: airlift and the manner in which Chinese tourists tend to visit a given destination.
In general, Nurse said, Chinese firms frequently “mop up” the tourism value chain — with a tendency to control everything from owning the airline coming into the destination to making sure the tour guide is Chinese.
Chinese tourists also more often make choices collectively — with trips not purchased by individual consumers, but as part of larger tour groups. That means a different kind of tourist than the traditional stayover visitor coming to the Caribbean from New York, Nurse said.
“So it requires a completely different strategy to ensure we get a higher value-added from the Asian traveler,” he said.
Of course, the hope, is that with projects like the Chinese-funded Baha Mar in Nassau, more Chinese tourists will brave the long travel time and head to the Caribbean.
But what kind of impact would they have?
“The question has to be dealt with is what will be the retention level of local firms in the tourism value chain, and that will be the big challenge that you have to confront,” Nurse said. “Because the Chinese tourism industry is notorious in other parts of the world where the operators in effect ‘mop up’ all the value-added there is, to control the elements of the value chain. So it’s not your traditional tourism framework.”
South Africa might pose the biggest challenge for the region; while Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller during a visit to Johannesburg last year noted a “commonality of our shared African history and legacy,” there are no direct flights between South Africa and the Caribbean.
At last month’s State of the Industry Conference in Martinique, travel marketing guru Paul Cohen said the Caribbean’s challenge would be “sensitizing” these countries about the region’s tourism product.
“We can make great strides by promoting ourselves under Brand Caribbean and are eager to partner with interested territories to develop a marketing strategy grounded in sustainable tourism principles in order to capitalize on these new opportunities,” said Figueroa, who is also the Deputy Tourism Commissioner of the United States Virgin Islands.
Either way, as the size of the world tourism pie continues to grow, the region will have to keep looking east and south.
“We know about the BRIC countries — these are not basket-cases. There is a lot of wealth, a lot of disposable income, people that want to travel, want to enjoy the nicer things in life, including a warm island destination,” Sealy told Caribbean Journal in an interview last year. “And we have to be out there offering it, we have to get into other parts of the world.”
For now, the region’s efforts are still in their early stages, but the early returns are positive.
In fact, earlier this year, a report from Expedia found that demand from Brazil for the Caribbean, particularly Jamaica, was rising — with a nearly 60 percent increase since 2011.
“Things are improving,” Nurse says. “Whether the numbers are going to be of the same order and magnitude that we’ve become associated with in North America and European countries is going to be a key issue — because those are further destinations than most European and American source markets.”