Renewed American focus can bring regional tourism dividends

Bruce Zagaris, a tourism expert, and Scott Buzzard examine the potential of co-operation between the United States, the Bahamas and the Caribbean in tourism in the light of recent legislative developments

On June 13 the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the US-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act of 2016. The act requires the Executive Branch to submit a multi-year strategy for US engagement with the Caribbean region, including plans for promoting greater economic development. Significant bipartisan interest exists in a similar bill in the Senate.

A month later, the House of Representatives held a hearing on the “Strategic Importance of Building a Stronger US-Caribbean Partnership”. The hearing focused on the need to support Caribbean tourism, which is the largest, albeit fragile, economic sector in the region.

Subcommittee members observed that several Caribbean countries have supported Venezuela in international organisations due to the assistance provided by that country through its “PetroCaribe” program since 2005. China, Cuba, Taiwan and Brazil have all moved to fill the power vacuum in the Caribbean. The focus was on how the US can develop a more collaborative relationship with the Caribbean to restore and maintain US influence in the region.

Testimony included a strategic look at increasing immigration pre-clearance programs, increasing collaboration on security issues, and providing technical assistance and training for the development of a shared watch-list for travellers into and within the region.

Financing is a critical element of facilitating US private investment in Caribbean tourism. Unlike foreign competitors, such as China, which subsidises mega-tourism projects like the $3.5 billion Baha Mar resort in the Bahamas, potential US investors often find that, due to the comparatively small size of most Caribbean tourism projects, most proposed Caribbean tourism projects qualify for neither Overseas Private Investment Corporation financing nor feasibility studies. Without the support of such programs, many private sector projects struggle to obtain the financing they need.

Proposed initiatives include improving the arrivals and departures processing experience through the implementation of Advance Passenger Information Systems and Automated Passport Control systems; advancing “one-stop” security clearance for travel to and connecting travel within the region; visa liberalisation; increasing the duty-free shopping allowance for returning US travellers; and supporting the establishment of a Caribbean Open Skies policy.

Bilateral tourism

With respect to travel and tourism collaboration, the US and Caribbean countries should conclude bilateral (or even a multilateral) agreement(s) on the development and facilitation of tourism, similar to the ones the US has already concluded with other countries. These agreements provide, among other things, for establishing government tourism offices and stationing personnel in each other’s territory; promoting the development of the tourism industry and infrastructure in each other’s territory; facilitating and encouraging bi-national cultural events; simplifying travel documents; saving certain visa fees; and promoting foreign investment in the tourism sectors.

In furtherance of these goals, the agreements provide for cultural and tourism programs, tourism training, the exchange of tourism statistics, joint marketing of tourism, consultations (annual meetings), and additional tourism-related protocols.

Cultural exchanges covered in the agreements should emulate some of those between Mexico and the US. The US-Mexico Tourism agreement includes provisions for establishing programs such as youth in action (activities for low-income youth), youth councils, sports diplomacy and an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).

Some of the Caribbean travel and tourism programs should be directed at the states, especially those in the Southeastern US. Many long-trip tourists, such as those from northern Europe and Asia, like to travel to parts of the US, especially the southeastern US, during the winter months. If they could take advantage of joint US-Caribbean tourism products, such as plantocracy tourism and cultural tourism packages and/or discounts on hotels and restaurants with operations in both the US and the Caribbean, then they would have more incentive to take such trips to both the US and the Caribbean. In this regard, some US states have already concluded their own tourism agreements and/or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with foreign counterparts.

For instance, California has a tourism agreement with Mexico and a MOU with Israel. The one with Mexico has as its objectives to increase bilateral tourism flows, with emphasis on luxury travel, adventure and nature tourism, sports tourism, sun and beach tourism, cultural tourism and tourism organised for groups.

Many US hotels, such as Best Western, Choice Hotels International, Divi, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Hyatt Hotels, Marriott Hotels, Island Inns, Radisson Resorts, and have hotels in the Caribbean. There are also other US-themed vacations, such as Dive SuperClubs, that have Caribbean operations. In addition, many US restaurants and casinos operate in the Caribbean, and a significant number of cruise liners bound for the Caribbean begin their journey in southeastern cities such as Miami.

These US travel and tourism operators can attract new business through joint marketing initiatives and by partnering to offer joint tours. For instance, hotels, restaurants and other service providers with operations in the southeast US and the Caribbean could offer discounts to tourists who plan to visit both regions. Via joint marketing initiatives, tourists can now obtain discounts at several service providers. Because the potential tourist is familiar with some of the brands, the potential tour now becomes more competitive in the mind of the tourist.

Cultural tourism

An example of how tourism co-operation between Caribbean states and the US states and federal government can have positive results for all parties is in the cultural tourism area. Tourists increasingly seek destinations with strong cultural heritage and an air of authenticity. Tourism provides cultural heritage and economic value and thus helps to preserve these assets.

Cultural tour groups are especially popular in northern Europe. Using the tourism agreement, assuming one is concluded, Barbados and South Carolina or Barbados, South Carolina, Virginia, and other states with deep histories of plantation economies could decide to develop inter-regional plantocracy tours. In Barbados, Georgian and Victorian architecture was quite prevalent in the 17th century. Hence, many plantation houses in Barbados were built according to this architectural guide, including The Garrison Historic Area, which features Georgian building styles.

Barbados still has a number of plantation houses that have been restored to their original style but there are a few that have been left to the elements. Some of the plantation houses have been converted for both private and commercial use. Two plantation homes in Barbados have been restored to their original state and are open for public viewings, the Sunbury Plantation House and St Nicholas Abbey.

The plantation economy and African slavery in the Carolinas started before English colonists settled Charles Town, now Charleston, South Carolina in 1670. In 1663, eight Lords Proprietors in England obtained land grants in North America from King Charles II for their loyalty to the monarchy during the English Civil War. The Lords decided to combine their shares to establish a profit-seeking proprietary settlement, Carolina, between the English colony of Virginia and Spanish Florida. To ensure financial success, they dispatched representatives to study the lucrative sugar plantation system in Barbados.

At one point, due to a scarcity of land in Barbados as a result of the land being dominated by large established plantations, to become landholders free white Barbadians had to migrate either to other West Indian islands or to Virginia or Carolina.

George Washington’s interactions with the country symbolise the long-standing connection between the US and Barbados. He visited Barbados in 1751 and spent about two months there. Barbados was the only country he ever visited outside colonial America. The George Washington House in Barbados, now appropriately under the control of the Barbados National Trust, provides useful insights into life as it was in the Barbados of 250 years ago. The ground floor of the building is furnished in the same style in which it might have been in 1751. The second floor of the building is devoted entirely to displays of items typical of life in the mid-18th century, which are richly described with both visual and audio aids.

The southeastern US, too, boasts numerous culturally significant relics harkening back to the Antebellum era that, like their Caribbean counterparts, are steeped in a rich common history. South Carolina, for example, has many old plantations that offer visitors a glimpse into the way of life that pervaded the Deep South throughout the pre-modern era. Prominent examples include the Middleton Place Plantation, a National Historic Landmark that is also America’s oldest landscaped garden, and the Drayton Hall plantation, which has one of the only original plantation houses remaining in the state due to General William T Sherman’s preoccupation with burning such structures to the ground on his infamous march to the sea.

In 1930, a group of four plantations totalling 6,635 acres and later extended, were bought as a place to preserve southeastern plants and animals and exhibit sculpture. Brookgreen Gardens, which features a fantastic sculpture garden, is one of the few institutions in the United States to earn accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as well as being designated a National Historic Landmark and being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One feature of Brookgreen Gardens is the Lowcountry Trail, consisting of a beautiful boardwalk that crosses the hillside overlooking Mainfield, a restored rice field of the former Brookgreen Plantation. The painter Washington Allston was born there in 1779. He financed his European art studies by selling the adjoining Springfield Plantation.

In addition to South Carolina, many other southeastern states have a diverse array of plantations and other old historic sites that align well with plantocracy themed vacations. Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana all contain a number of Antebellum-era plantations, actively promote tourism to these sites, and are geographically situated such that they are easily accessible to tourists seeking to gain a better understanding of these old ways of life.

Another potential area for travel and tourism co-operation is study tours. Periodically, professional organisations such as universities, bar associations, architects, or organisations such as National Geographic, organise their own cross-border educational programs. The study tours would enable a tourist to spend time in a Caribbean country becoming educated about such aspects as local architecture, local and regional politics, international financial services, local legal, accountancy and banking professionals, and the role of academics in the local and regional educational system(s).

Study programs can appeal to naturalists, historians, health care professions, high school and college study tour programs, and those interested in programs oriented toward music, literature, theatre, and arts and crafts.

The interplay between Caribbean-US performing arts, especially music, is clear. One example of cultural tourism concerning performing arts in Caribbean are the Carnivals. In this regard, much of the Caribbean diaspora and tourists in general attend Carnivals to experience cultural authenticity, including pan, calypso and masquerade. State officials, development planners and cultural entrepreneurs perceive culture and nationalism as the means with which to create a market niche in the tourism economy. Indeed the potential to export aspects of Carnival – mas, calypso and pan – has significant implications for Trinidadian identity and culture.

Most US state universities, colleges and even some community colleges have tourism and travel and/or hospitality and tourism management programs. Many of them are focused on the private sector, while others, such as the one at George Washington University, cater in part to government tourism officials and have links to the World Tourism Organization. If Cuba, with its severe and pervasive poverty, could find ways to accommodate Caribbean students in its universities, surely US stakeholders can persuade some of the state universities to engage in collaborative arrangements with universities and colleges in Caribbean countries for their mutual benefit.

Power vacuum

Stakeholders interested in a stable and healthy Caribbean and a collaborative US-Caribbean economic and political relationship should act to take advantage of these unique opportunities, especially since the US executive and legislative branches have not similarly focused on their economic relationship with the Caribbean since at least the Reagan Administration. Announced in February, 1982, the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) had three prongs: it provided $350 billion emergency aid for the region; it asked Congress to allow most Caribbean exports to enter duty-free for 12 years; and it promoted US private investment in the region by providing tax incentives for US companies to operate there and by negotiating treaties to protect their investments.

Problems of the CBI were the need to multilateralise the unilateral US initiative and provide better institutional mechanisms for regional integration. The lack of sufficient investment incentives and the need to embrace services within the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act undermined its success. In contrast, the Lome Convention and the EU-Caribbean Economic Partnership Agreement cover services and have a multilateral institutional framework in which CARIFORA countries participate in the decision-making.

The political gain to be had is underscored by the fact that countries with whom the US has at best tepid relations, such as China and Venezuela, have moved to fill the power vacuum caused by the US’ neglect of the region.

Joint marketing, joint tourism programs and other forms of collaboration between the Caribbean and the United States will encourage new tourists to visit both the Caribbean and the US. In addition, promoting study tours and cultural heritage tourism provide opportunities for quality and sustainable tourism in both regions.

Although collaboration can be organised through tourism agreements with national and/or state governments, public-private partnerships can also accomplish many of the goals. In this respect, tourism industry leaders and US travel and tourism associations, who arguably have the most to gain, are crucial partners for facilitating the expansion of cross-border travel to and from the Caribbean.

Through the combination of lessening government interference with respect to visa requirements and other restrictions on travel and proactively creating a more robust framework to assist the private sector develop and finance inter-regional travel and tourism initiatives, the economic benefit to both US and Caribbean tourism stakeholders is clear.

As Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” proclaimed, the travel and tourism co-operation between the US and the Caribbean should enable new tourists “to sail beyond the sunset and the baths of the western stars”. By showing creativity and ingenuity, American and Caribbean entrepreneurs and government officials can help jump-start both of their tourism and service sectors.

• Bruce Zagaris is a partner at Berliner Corcoran & Rowe LLP, Washington, DC. A former lecturer at the University of the West Indies Law Faculty, he testified in Congress on the Caribbean Basin Initiative, and his practice has focused on Caribbean financial services and investment. Scott Buzzard is a JD Candidate, 2017 American University Washington College of Law; Intern at Berliner Corcoran & Rowe; and Articles Editor, American University International Law Review.


banker 6 years, 3 months ago

While all of this is fine and dandy, what is not dealt with here, is the desirability of the tourism product. One would suspect that the American desirability to visit Cuba after years of embargo is very large. The desirability to visit the Bahamas is small, as evidenced by less than 30% of the cruise ship passengers get off the boat at Prince George Wharf in Nassau.

Can the desirability factor be rectified? Perhaps. However there must be infrastructure in place. Current tourism trends show that there the trends are for experiential tourism. Witness the popularity of the zip lines through the rainforest canopy in Costa Rica, or taking a gondola ride in a faux Venice in Las Vegas.

The only exploitable Nassau assets are the beaches, which aren't that exciting and have a crime level attached to them. There are flamingos on Inagua, but it is tough to get there, difficult to exploit and probably bad on the environment. People love the Atlantis "Swim with the Dolphins", but then you get operators like Blackbeard's Cay where the dolphins are mistreated and the who thing reeks of exploitation and animal cruelty.

Tourism is a failing pillar of the economy, as is the tax haven stuff. What the Bahamas really needs, is entry into the first world of knowledge industries, global trade, and value-added services due to geo-political factors.

The fiscal problems of the country are too deep to re-invest in the tourism product, and as it stands the current infrastructure is not sustainable in the long term.

Cuba would be the largest beneficiary of the legislation mentioned above.


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