Major Jamaica conference aims to catapult tourism to centre stage

In just over a week’s time, Jamaica will host a major international conference intended to reposition tourism as a global driver of sustainable development.

Unlike other industry related events, ‘Jobs and Inclusive Growth: Partnerships for Sustainable Tourism’ will explore how international financial institutions, governments, donors and leading industry players can create new tourism-related partnerships that foster social inclusiveness, employment and poverty-reduction.

The conference, which takes place in Montego Bay from November 27 to 29, is co-sponsored by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the Jamaican government, the World Bank Group, and the Inter-American Development Bank. It will also involve new global industry players such as Airbnb.

Edmund Bartlett

The intention, according to Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, is to look at the industry in the round, to enable those involved in policy formulation to see better the potential the industry has to deliver development to wider groups in society. He hopes that over three days, the conference’s high-level participants will identify successful advances and initiatives in tourism from around the world. In this way, he believes, tourism globally can become a central force helping deliver the UN’s sustainable development goals.

For some in the Caribbean the idea of a wider role of this kind for tourism may be challenging.

In the past, the sector has tended to be freewheeling, bottom-line oriented, and at times less than socially aware. So much so, that the most commonly heard criticism is that despite the industry accounting for at least 15 per cent of the region’s GDP, directly and indirectly employing around 15 per cent of the region’s workforce, and probably contributing much more in other ways not statistically captured, its impact on social development has been limited.

This is because since the 1950s the Caribbean created a product that for the most part, is largely contained, and is about hotels, the beach, or visitors arriving and departing within a day by cruise ship. This has meant that most governments, until very recently, have been promoting a product that is largely one dimensional, differentiated only by price, and for them not driven by much more than sustaining government revenue.

What the Montego Bay conference reflects is a view internationally that tourism can have a much wider role, can deliver sustainable gains to groups in rural and urban areas, and can be developed in ways that more closely link it to agriculture, education, training and culture in its broadest sense. The thinking is that tourism’s multi-faceted nature and its role in providing significant resource transfers from wealthier countries and individuals, if better organised and embraced, can become a significant driver of national development.

In Montego Bay, participating governments, international financial institutions, and development agencies are expected to consider how new and innovative approaches to investment might grow tourism’s economic contribution and share its benefits more equitably and sustainably.

In a Caribbean context this suggests that the moment has arrived for all to rethink the sector’s role in the wider economy and the nature of the relationship between government and the industry.

Above all, tourism as a sector needs to be seen not as something apart, but as having the potential to stimulate the many inputs, services and skills that modern economies require. To do so it will require translating the changing requirements of visitors for experience and the authentic in ways that support the development of rural and urban areas; developing new forms of tourism away from the beach; finding ways to sustain the region’s vernacular architecture; and more generally fostering Caribbean culture and history if destinations are to be unique.

For this to happen a country’s tourism product in future will have to do more than generate prosperity for large hotel owners and the cruise ship companies. It must stimulate sustainable economic growth in the domestic economy, by creating linkages and convergence with other sectors.

At its most obvious, this means transforming agriculture so that it meets not only the tourism sectors requirements for foodstuff, but at the same time is seen as a way to offset the region’s US$8bn non-tourism food import bill. It also requires Ministers of Finance and Central Bankers to understand better how in other parts of the world, the industry has ceased to be a cash cow used to balance budgets or to provide foreign exchange, but has become linked to the development of the broader economy, with the support of multilateral institutions and the private sector.

How these and other objectives are to be achieved in the region and internationally will be the central themes at the Montego Bay conference.

Jamaica’s Tourism Minister hopes that the discussions and overall outcome of the conference will result in the industry becoming central to international development policy, a driver of beneficial change that touches everyone, and as a vehicle for delivering the UN Sustainable goals.

He says too, that he would like to see the event enable the country to position itself as a global tourism centre, where on an annual basis international and regional thinking on matters relating to the development of tourism can take place.

Tourism and travel is now the world’s  largest service sector industry and is continuing to grow rapidly. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) in 2016 it contributed 3.1% to direct GDP growth, outpacing growth in the global economy which grew by 2.5%, it generated US$7.6 trillion or 10.2% of global GDP, and accounted for 1 in 10 jobs in the global economy. It is also the principal economic driver in almost every Caribbean nation.

The heavyweight institutional support and high level international political participation in the Montego Bay conference suggests that the time has arrived for not just the region but the wider world to consider the ways in which tourism, a once side-lined industry, can now move to centre stage to create benefits for all.

David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at

He will be chairing a panel at the conference

Previous columns can be found at


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