Much of what Caribbean governments promote as their tourism product is undifferentiated: beaches, sun, ocean, and tropical settings. When differentiation does occur it features specific resorts and visitor amenities.
There are two primary types of vacationers. The first travel to experience history, culture and communities. The second prioritize relaxation, which is most often synonymous with being pampered in visually appealing surroundings, whether natural or developed.
Both vacationers, however, prioritize the quality of the experience. When a vacation fails to meet expectations based on what was advertised, it leaves both travelers equally unsatisfied. Buyer remorse for the dollars spent amplifies the dissatisfaction. The destination loses the opportunity of repeat visits. More detrimental is that this dissatisfaction is shared with others, which translates into reduced visitor demand and diminishes perception of the destination.
Most Caribbean islands can be attractive to both types of travelers. The Caribbean has a rich and picturesque history and much cultural diversity. The colonial plantation heritage along with the triangular trade involving slavery and molasses, and privateering that ranged from terrorizing shipping to supporting the wars of colonial powers offers a rich history to explore. Elements of European, African, Asian and artifacts of Native American society blend into a uniquely Caribbean culture that offers much to explore and experience.
Successfully appealing to both types of travelers, however, requires thinking beyond just resorts, shopping and water sports and making investments that revitalize and repackage this history and culture.
Worldwide, the top 10 travel destinations in 2018 (i.e., France, being number one with 89.4 million visitors and the United Kingdom being number 10 with 36.3 million) attracted more than 40% of worldwide tourism. Competition for visitor traffic is keen and differentiation and brand identification essential. Success in such a competitive environment requires involvement of all stakeholders. The most competitive destinations (France and Spain) aggressively refresh and burnish their architectural and social history, culture and cuisine. This necessitates broad-based stakeholder engagement. It requires public, private and philanthropic financial investments as well as broad-based community involvement to stay ahead of the competition.
Equally important is discipline and consistency in presenting the tourism product and ensuring that representations and product offerings are integrated. It is essential to be attuned to visitor feedback and the periodic evaluation and retooling of both the product and the message based on that feedback.
As such, the competitiveness of global and regional tourism requires that a destination frequently review its competitive positioning. Staying ahead of the competition involves refreshing what is promoted and drawing a distinction between what is available and that which is available elsewhere.
Culture, history, social and community values are destination specific attributes. It is these social characteristics that bring the first-time visitor back and contributes to viral marketing. This insider promotion is far more productive and successful than mass advertising. Not only does it afford exclusivity in an industry of non-differentiated options but it means that those who are most appreciative and respectful of what is available are the target of that communication.
The most sought-after destinations have a distinct personality. Aligning that personality with the visitor’s, creates an emotional and enduring visceral connection.
This identification with and connection to a destination increases its competitive positioning as a travel location. Environmental offerings which are not necessarily differentiable such as beaches, ocean and tropical surroundings round out the full visitor experience but are not the sole driving force behind the appeal to visitors.
Tourism implemented effectively allows communities without natural resources, competitive agricultural and manufacturing, and uniquely skilled labor to build sustainable economies. It allows opportunity for domestic and external investment, ownership and local employment.
Economically sustainable tourism, however, requires that a community control its own messaging. Relinquishing that results in a homogenized tourism product devoid of a differentiable character and exploitable by outside investment.
Outside investment more often sees economic opportunity in delivering a homogenized product that is time tested and elsewhere successfully marketed. This marginalization of the destination exacerbates economic leakage.
In remote small islands leakage occurs when a substantial portion of every dollar leaves the economy in the form of management and financing expense, profit and imports. David Leslie of Glasow Caledonian University refers to the findings of two United Nations groups that estimate leakage at as much as .80 cents on the dollar. Local investment, ownership and spending reduces this number.
In order to be sustainable and economically productive Caribbean tourism should become less about numbers and more about product differentiation. It should work towards ensuring that visitors have meaningful experiences and leave with strong destination impressions and visceral takeaways from their visit.
Maintaining control of both the messaging and product offerings allows communities to positively influence demand and industry perception. Maximizing local ownership of tourism facilities and offerings increases the retention of tourism spending. Communities are then better able to shape how economic benefits accrue to stakeholders.