April 10, 2003 – Public-private sector partnerships, government support of airlines, cooperation among Caribbean destinations and intelligent use of technology, especially the Internet, are some of the things that will see the region through the current downtrend in travel and the economy, Jean S. Holder, secretary-general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, told a standing-room-only crowd Thursday night.
Speaking to an audience of University of the Virgin Islands students, government officials including Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, and business owners and managers, Holder said: "We need to learn how to better manage the process of transition."
Holder put the flagging airline industry at the top of the list of problems plaguing the Caribbean nations that his organization represents. "If you live on an island and don't have air transportation, you are virtually in a prison," he said.
Citing in vivid statistics the abysmal state of the airline industry, particularly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Holder said airlines have to give up the idea of making big profits and instead serve as the catalyst for the businesses at the destinations to make money.
While the big scheduled airlines are lining up to file for bankruptcy protection, he noted, "no-frills" carriers such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways are turning considerable profits.
"Through the grievous blow to global tourism," Holder said, some "valuable lessons" were learned.
Fear of total collapse, he said, provided the airlines with leverage to obtain new agreements with vendors and employees, thus reducing costs.
He said government-owned Air Jamaica, which took $70 million in losses last year, has sought help from the government to keep from going belly-up — and has gotten it.
The global crises which include fear of terrorism and a dramatic economic downtrend in the United States have created $30 billion in losses to the airlines, according to the International Air Transport Association, he said.
Public-private partnerships, if taken from a good model, are a big part of the solution, Holder said. "The time has come for private and public partnerships," he said, with an emphasis on the government meeting its responsibilities in the relationship.
Holder said he has never heard anyone comment on the state of the bathrooms in their hotel room. "They talk about how they were treated" — by the housekeeper, the bartender and others in the community, he said.
When tourism is a jurisdiction's only economic base, he said, it is crucial for the government to work with the private sector to get that message to the community.
He also said the entire Caribbean as a destination, along with the airlines that serve the various countries and territories, must start working togther instead of being "bent on going their own ways."
Technology, Holder said, has not been the strong suit of Caribbean states — and, in fact, the region is one "where the Internet is least used." But proper utilization of the Internet, he said, is key to economic recovery. "It is the Internet that will best serve" business, he said.
On the up side, Holder said, the Caribbean, because of its geographic location and long history of democracy, has an "incredible" advantage over other tourism destinations. A trainable work force, safety and security make it a "choice" destination, he said, while adding that democracy as a factor "should not be taken for granted" in the 21st century world where terrorism is widely feared and can happen at any time, in any place.
He also pointed out that the tourism economy had begun to lag in the region before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Hotel chain mergers and cruise lines making negotiations complicated while not keeping up with changing trends in travel were reasons he cited for the initial downturn. "Land-based tourism was suffering by the growth of cruise ships, too." he said.
Research has long shown that overnight guests spend far more per day than cruise ship visitors. Holder also said tourists nowadays are "not the same old consumers who were coming to the Caribbean to lie on the beach." In fact, he added, "somebody's telling them it's dangerous to lie on the beach."
He concluded, however, that recovery will come "if we are prepared to work together and embrace the challenge of change."
The lecture, attended by more than 150 people, was the fifth in UVI Social Sciences Division's lecture series. It was held in a overflowing classroom at the St. Thomas campus Sports and Fitness Center.

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