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The Business of Tourism - Time now for the CHTA to renew itself

Strong private-sector associations offer government, the media, civil society and their own membership a voice and a central organisation able to organise and deliver programmes of relevance.

Tourism should be no different.

In the Caribbean, the role of its representative body is particularly important, as whoever speaks for the private-sector part of the industry as a whole is speaking on behalf of the region's single most important economic sector. In a national context, it is, therefore, not surprising, for example, that the president of the single most powerful business association in the Dominican Republic, the Consejo Nacional de la Empresa Privada (CONEP), is Rafael Canto Blanco, a nationally and regionally well-known and popular figure who owns and operates hotels there and elsewhere.

In the Caribbean, the private-sector part of hotel and tourism industry is represented by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA). It is, in effect, an association of associations; one that brings together national hotel and tourism bodies in most Caribbean nations with suppliers to the industry.

No secret

It is no secret, however, that in recent times, the CHTA has been through some troubled times and has lost some of its influence and voice as it has struggled to deliver the programmes that its membership requires, and has not done enough to engage publicly on the issues that matter most to the sector.

The announcement, therefore, in the last few days that Frank Comito, the former executive vice-president of the Bahamas Hotel Association, is to take on the role in March of chief executive officer of CHTA is therefore welcome. His experience and knowledge of the region and the industry ought to do much to place the organisation on a forward trajectory.

Over the last 50 years, the industry in the Caribbean has emerged from political rejection and social suspicion, but still has yet to clearly and publicly set out where it wishes to go for its own members and the role its sees itself playing in the region as a whole on the key issues affecting tourism.

Critical to the future of the organisation will be finding new ways to embrace changes in airlift, new forms of marketing, intense global competition, ever more burdensome taxation, the continuing challenge of the cruise ships, and the need to ensure the association's long-term viability.

The organisation needs also to retain and build membership so that it encompasses an industry that now ranges from small local properties to large foreign-owned or marketed chain hotels that tend not to want to be involved in industry associations. It has to be able to relate much better to the region's political leadership and be able to carry with it governments and a public sector, which in many cases still have to come fully to terms with the industry and its needs. It will also need to be better at engaging commercially - in today's world, no association can be run on any basis other than for profit - while at the same time being able to keep onside and charm a sometimes fractious membership that embraces the Anglophone, Hispanic, Dutch and French Caribbean.

There are also new challenges ahead on the international front. The industry in Cuba needs to be engaged with, and brought back into the CHTA fold in the light of the gradual normalisation of relations with the US, the region's biggest tourism feeder market; the organisation ought to begin to engage with China, which is interested in having a tourism interlocutor in the region; it ought to be in closer dialogue with regional bodies and multilateral funding agencies; and it should engage with those in North America and Europe who set the public policy that affects the competitiveness of the industry.

The latest changes in CHTA's full-time leadership should be welcomed. The challenge now will be for the organisation to reinvent itself so that it repositions and enthuses the industry and begins the difficult process of preparing for a newer generation of leadership and fresh thinking. 

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