Last month was big on the Caribbean tourism beat. I attended two major travel conferences within weeks of one another. The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA) both hosted September conferences that marked the first large post-pandemic gathering for each organization.
There were plenty of good vibes springing from the delight of once again interacting with friends, colleagues and sources in person. But beyond the personal warm feelings was a clearly positive outlook for Caribbean tourism's future.
Top officials from destinations at each show reported strong land-based visitor arrivals and rebounding cruise traffic this summer, as the Caribbean continues a stout comeback from pandemic-driven travel shutdowns and restrictions.
In addition to the surging arrivals, attendees at the two shows highlighted the Caribbean's continuing travel infrastructure improvements and enhancements, and the ever-growing slate of new hotels and resorts scheduled to open across the region in the coming years.
Still, roadblocks remain to further Caribbean tourism growth, perhaps the most significant being airlift. One airline association official asserts high government taxation drives airfares to Caribbean destinations higher than fares to other regions.
Speaking at CTO's conference, Peter Cerda, regional vice president for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said government taxes and fees represent 30 percent of Caribbean airfares, twice the 15 percent that taxes and fees represent for global airfares.
"From Miami to Antigua, we are looking at a $900 roundtrip ticket for the same dates in October. But Miami to Cancun averages around $310 for a roundtrip ticket," Cerda said.
Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica's minister of tourism, countered that high Caribbean airfares result from more than high destination-imposed taxes. He cited airlines' yield management policies, which continuously push fares to the highest attainable levels.
"What we are seeking is affordable travel," Bartlett asserted. "That places some responsibility on the part of the carrier. Where are the efficiencies of the airline operating this route?" he asked, to which Cerda responded, "We charge what the customer will pay based on demand."
High-priced Caribbean airfare has been a long-running issue, dating back at least to the past decade, when I first began attending Caribbean travel conferences, and perhaps even further back, when I covered Caribbean countries as a cruise segment reporter. I can recall attending more than one conference in years past during which the same issues were debated.
Yet an even longer-running topic has been intra-Caribbean air service, which remains fragmented, negatively impacting travel within the region and limiting multi-island travel opportunities. The CTO's newest chairman, Kenneth Bryan, the Cayman Islands minister of tourism, acknowledged as much during the group's gathering.
"I recognize, like all other members, that there needs to be some reform and restructuring, particularly with respect to air travel and marketing," Bryan said. "I'm ready to take on the challenge, in collaboration with my regional colleagues, of finding a new way forward."
Indeed, it appeared at CTO gathering that Cerda's group and Caribbean destination officials will begin communications that may lead to solutions to the high airfares. There was some discussion of a seasonal tax structure for airlines.
Under any scenario, there's no question a solution will take a great deal of discussion and likely some compromise on both sides. Crafting a more cohesive intra-Caribbean air network may prove even more difficult and rely in part on attracting private investment and forging intra-governmental visa agreements.
The Caribbean tourism's future looks bright, but the forecast is at least partly cloudy. What comes next will rely on the discussions stakeholders hold at upcoming industry gatherings and in talks beyond the conference centers.
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