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EXPERTS: CARIBBEAN WEATHERING TOURISM SLUMP

Oct. 16, 2003 – "We have got to get more Americans away from the television and on airplanes to real and not virtual trips," a top European travel official told her Caribbean associates Thursday at the opening general session of the Caribbean Tourism Organization's 26th annual conference, which is being held on St. Thomas.
And in order to do so, Frederique Raeymaekers, vice chair of the European Travel Commission, said, "We have to make deals attractive and affordable."
She said the tourism sector in Europe has been going through a crisis along with the rest of the world and has seen an $8 billion loss in annual revenues. In 2000, member nations recorded 13 million visitor arrivals, and in 2002 the numbers were down to 10.1 million, she said.
Raeymaekers was one of six panelists who discussed "strategies for recovery and growth" of the tourism industry in the session held at the Sports and Fitness Center on the University of the Virgin Islands St. Thomas campus. The theme of the conference is "Recovery and Growth in a Fiercely Competitive Environment," from the Caribbean perspective.
Another panelist, Doug Fyfe, chief executive officer of the Canadian Tourism Commission, didn't beat around the bush. "This year sucked," he said. "Those of us who make it to Jan. 1, 2004, will have to pat themselves on the back."
Fyfe told the conference participants that they should look after their own best interests first and could only help someone else after they were strong enough to be helpful. "This is a tough business," he said. "We are in a fight for survival."
While competition for visitors has long been fierce among Caribbean vacation destinations, the CTO exists to address issues from a regional stance, and its conferences are built around the idea of cooperative and mutually beneficial approaches to tourism issues, including marketing.
Fyfe noted, however, that many of the region's ministers of tourism had left the center after the formal opening ceremonies that preceded the first general session. He said he would have been happy if they had stayed to listen to the consumer viewpoint.
V.I. Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards did attend the session. along with many international delegates to the conference.
Jean Holder, secretary general of the CTO, assured Fyfe that the ministers would all get a report of what occurred at the session.
In his remarks, Holder said, referring to the state of tourism in the Caribbean: "We have continued to do better than a lot of people." The "recovery" focus of the conference has to do with the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. mainland, economic downturns worldwide, the fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and other disincentives to the public to engage in leisure travel.
Raeymaekers projected the Caribbean would recover faster than other destinations, however. She said the region is considered safe, is close to the United States, and is a family vacation destination.
Worldwide, the top tourism regions are the Caribbean, with 34 percent of leisure travelers; Britain, with 25 percent; and Europe, with 22 percent, Raeymaekers said.
Holder warned that the Caribbean tourism industry must not relax its efforts. Its competitors "are not sleeping on the job," he said. And with terrorism concerns certain to abate, the Caribbean has to stop everything that it is doing wrong, he said, and then "we have to do it right."
Panel moderator David Preece, president of the Institute of Certified Travel Agents, asked how important developing a product is to recovery. Holder responded that the product needs to be improved, and service is part of the product. "Everybody is concerned with marketing, and they don't see what product development has to do with it," he said. "If anybody left the Caribbean saying that the service is the best, none of these guys would be here."
Panelist Bo W. Long, past chair of the Pacific and Asia Travel Association, said he does not believe that product development will influence recovery.
Product clubs are an example of product development practiced in Canada. Fyfe described them as groups of business owners who get together to develop niche products until they are ready to bring them to the market. Then they ask the government for help. Canada decided to do product clubs because small businesses felt left out, he said.
Raeymaekers, who is from Belgium, said the CTO and the European Tourism Organization are examples of cooperative competition. The individual company cannot achieve by itself what it can in collaboration with others, she said.
She told of a country that overcame the problem of its citizens treating tourists badly. The successful approach was a campaign to teach citizens to value their American tourist, she said.
In Canada, tourism is the nation's No. 12 industry, Fyfe said, so it is difficult to promote the importance of being tourist friendly.
Holder said the only way to promote community participation in tourism is to demonstrate to the people how it will benefit them.

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