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The new breed of travel agents offering more value for money

David Jessop, Contributor

A quick look at any travel section in newspapers in North America, Europe or those in emerging economies like Brazil, and it is clear that almost every country or major destination in the world is now vying to promote their uniqueness to visitors.

Most Caribbean nations and hotels have recognised the importance of meeting this challenge and either individually, or in co-operation with others like the airlines and tour operators, have with various levels of financial commitment developed advertising, marketing, public relations and other campaigns using new media. However, what remains missing is anything much beyond lip service on the part of Caribbean governments and the industry, that there ought to be a parallel regional marketing campaign.

While there may be reasons for this no longer being considered - weakened budgets, austerity, the failures of a regional integration process that is unable to deliver - it is still surprising, as there is previous evidence that suitably tailored campaigns work.

Looking back, Caribbean heads of government approved in 1992 the first ever cooperative regional marketing campaign. Funded with both public and private-sector support and led by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and the Caribbean Hotel Association (now CHTA), a television commercial aired a year later, largely in North America. Its focus was on images from around the Caribbean with a sound track featuring the Beach Boys singing their hit song, Kokomo. The campaign raised consumer awareness of the Caribbean as a vacation destination and thousands responded to the promotions, reversing a then downward trend in visitor arrivals from North America.

Since then, the concept of a regional marketing campaign has remained alive sporadically and the issue has been raised and discussed at some Caribbean heads of government meetings, although in the last two years tourism has entirely fallen off their agenda.

Enquiring about this recently, it seems that the same issues remain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, while everyone thinks it a good idea, the concerns revolve around how this should be funded, who should coordinate such a campaign and how it should be run. There was also a sense that because most Caribbean destinations are seeing increases in visitor arrivals and yield, it is less necessary than in the years following the global economic crisis.

Despite this, selling the concept of the Caribbean region as a holiday destination, particularly using much cheaper new media to a new generation, remains important. It ensures that the Caribbean and what it has to offer remains at the forefront of the minds of both stay over and cruise visitors alike, and is a vital adjunct to country-specific national campaigns.

The issue is now of particular importance as warm-weather destinations from the Indian Ocean, through nations on both coasts of Central America to the islands of the Pacific are promoting themselves to the same stop-over and cruise passengers from North America and Europe through pictures of clear tropical waters, white-sand beaches and ever more special or luxurious hotels.

What this points to is the need for a regional campaign that sets out to portray the Caribbean's diversity, its people and its environment, making use of new media otherwise, it will as a region come to be seen as a tired and old destination.

In many respects this may be seen in Jamaica or a few other regional destinations which have successfully branded themselves, created a global image, encouraged new airlift and are seeing visitor numbers increase, as no longer being an issue.

However, it would be short-sighted for any nation to rest on its laurels and not recognise the way the visitor market is changing, particularly among those with the most disposable income such as global young professionals who see anywhere in the world as their vacation destination.

The world has moved on, the Caribbean as a region has to find new ways to connect with a new generation who, in addition to beaches, want high-quality cuisine, heritage, spas and a chance to meet local people to understand what a country is really like. That is to say, they are seeking multiple experiences in one vacation and need to know the Caribbean as a region that can be visited and revisited. 

Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Dr Wykeham McNeill (sixth left) poses with members of the newly formed Craft Council of Jamaica. From left: ministry's permanent secretary, Jennifer Griffith; senior director, policy and monitoring, Elecia Myers; president, Ocho Rios Craft Council, Devon Mitchell; Port Authority of Jamaica's William Tatham; CEO, Jamaica Business Development Corporation, Valerie Veira; state minister in the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, Damion Crawford; chairman of the Craft Council of Jamaica, Mary Helen Reece; NVL Projects & Trading's Neil Lawrence; lecturer, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, Laura Jones-Davis; the Institute of Jamaica's Ann-Marie Bonner; and National Irrigation Commission's Kirk Freckleton. 

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