In a few days’ time, Caricom Heads of Government will meet in Haiti. Judging from recent conversations with senior figures across the region, the encounter is unlikely to be straightforward or easy. While no doubt there will be the usual anodyne communique at the end of the meeting, some of the issues that will likely arise will divide the regional grouping along lines that are both fundamental and ideological, juxtaposing values, economic need, sovereignty and external pressures.
The big issues are well known. They range from the regional institution’s political response to the deteriorating situation in Venezuela and the US desire to isolate the Maduro government within the hemisphere; Mexico and the US’s desire to establish alternative energy security initiatives to PetroCaribe; Caricom’s continuing implementation deficit and the growing pressure from some members states for the institution’s fundamental reform; and Guyana’s requirement for Caricom’s unequivocal backing for the UN decision to refer the territorial controversy with Venezuela to the International Court of Justice.
There are also other more prosaic functional issues relating for example to trade and free movement that in one or another way come up at every meeting, but which few governments in private at least hold out any hope of seeing rapidly resolved. Other equally vital, even existential issues relate to climate change, regional security and industry specific matters on which region-wide decisions in real time are required.
Discussing this in recent weeks with some of the participants in the Port-au-Prince meeting, it is striking how much they belive that the time is almost at hand when they and others say ‘enough’ and seek better results-oriented outcomes delivered through alternative inter-regional relationships.
They suggest too that if the regional integration process is unable to function as constructed, a more viable future approach might be to identify a few practical areas in which co-operation is possible with like-minded neighbours, and use this as an eventual springboard to alternative forms of regional integration.
In this context, one recent development which has practical implications, albeit at a functional level, relates to the region’s premier industry, tourism, in ways that seek to address some of the impediments to regional integration.
It is the development of multi-destination tourism. Traditionally, stay-over tourism has been based on a single-destination model. For most of the Caribbean this will likely remain the principal approach for the foreseeable future, albeit with a new emphasis on diversification away from the beach and improving the visitor experience.
There are, however, signs that a multi-destination product which has been talked about for many years is emerging. The basic concept is straightforward. It revolves around the idea that the visitor who wants to see and understand more of the Caribbean can, if the right arrangements exist, visit seamlessly two, three or more geographically proximate nations.
Unlike cruise tourism, multi-destination travel involves stay-overs in each nation and a higher spend. It is potentially of great appeal to visitors coming from non-traditional distant source markets like China or Russia, who want to see and experience more and stay longer.
In the last few months, at the initiative of Jamaica’s Tourism Minister, Edmund Bartlett, multi-destination agreements have been signed by Jamaica with Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, while Cayman has indicated that in the coming months it expects to do the same.
Importantly, multi-destination tourism goes beyond marketing and promotion. For it to happen it requires several factors to work together. A 2015 study by the UN World Tourism Organisation set these out as being ease of crossing borders; transport connectivity; branding in major tourist markets; the involvement of tour operators, hotel chains and travel suppliers in developing innovative products; and of course, regional cooperation.
Placed in a Caribbean context this means that for the initiatives agreed to work, there will have to be efficient air and maritime connectivity between participating countries; an aggressive review of existing immigration and border control mechanisms; additional incentives so that tour operators, hoteliers and other service providers develop multi-destination marketing programmes; and fresh resources put into joint marketing campaigns.
More specifically, for multi-destination tourism to be seamless, a single travel document will be required allowing visitors entering one country to enter the others without a separate visa. Ideally there should also be agreement on mitigating into a single sum the wildly varying tourism taxes visitors pay in different countries; and an overall approach that captures for the visitor the cultural and other differences of each location.
It also requires an acceptance that certain regional hubs such as Havana, Mexico City, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and in future Panama City, are likely to be the best facilitators for visitors by air from China, Russia and East Asia who are seeking a multi-destination experience. This is because they are easy-entry transit points for passengers on Air China, Aeroflot and other long-haul same-plane services not seen elsewhere in the region.
In this context, reports in the Cayman media suggest that the inter-regional connectivity option being explored is for Cayman Airways to operate a spoke and hub service carrying visitors between multi-destination partner countries in the Northern Caribbean.
While the detail is challenging, it is not insurmountable. Rather it will require the political will of those in the governments concerned to follow through to unlock the likely bureaucratic impediments that such a mould-breaking initiative suggests.
To this end, a joint summit has been scheduled to take place by March involving high-level representatives from Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Mexico, who reportedly will also discuss the marketing arrangements in greater detail.
Multi-destination tourism has broader implications. It reflects a view that future growth may lie in economic convergence between the region’s larger economies in the north of the region, or for example, closer integration between Barbados, the OECS and the French département d’outre-mer. The suggestion is that with much improved transport infrastructure, tourism could become a significant driver in developing a new model of bottom-up economic integration.
While initiatives of this kind will not resolve the region’s bigger and perhaps irreconcilable differences, they do suggest that there are more modest, practical, growth-oriented approaches, if they can be made to work, that could demonstrate with private sector support that functional integration can bring benefits.
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org