Caribbean tourism selling culture short

Tourism officials are concerned that Caribbean countries could lose their cultural authenticity within the next decade if critical steps are not taken to preserve cultural identity in each island.

As the annual Caribbean Week got off to a pulsating and energetic start in New York on Monday night, industry players and Caribbean Diaspora representatives agreed that the region was selling itself short when it came to that segment of the tourism industry, which is said to contribute over $620 billion to the global economy annually.

They were speaking as part of a panel during the Caribbean Diaspora Forum at the Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, on the topic Optimizing the Economic Potential of Cultural and Heritage Tourism.

Chief Executive Officer of Global Enterprises Management Solutions (GEMS) of St Lucia Wilson Baptiste said one of the critical steps toward capitalizing on the economic benefits of cultural and heritage tourism in the region had to be educating the population and the Diaspora on its benefits.

Focusing on historical sites, Baptiste also pointed out that marketing efforts should be targeted to find the right balance between offering visitors a saleable hospitality experience and serving up genuine cultural experiences.

“Cultural and heritage tourism sites’ . . . authenticity is being changed so that they could generate revenue for the tourism site owners. However, that can be overdone and when it is overdone, this is where we have tension and conflict between the property owners and the brokers of cultural and heritage tourism, because the brokers would want to so Americanize the cultural and heritage tourism sites, changing [them] dramatically, that [they] may not share the same kind of history. We need to do everything we can to protect those artifacts because it is a part of who we are,” explained Baptiste.

“However, we have challenging situations in terms of job creation, in terms of modernizing our tourism product, and, as a result, we may very well end up losing the authenticity of this product of who we are, and in the next ten or 15 years everything in the Caribbean may not be authentic. It [would be] something we can find anywhere in the world so we would not be able to differentiate ourselves from other tourism products globally,” he further warned.

The hospitality executive said the Diaspora also had a role to play in the region’s cultural and heritage development by way of investment, adding that another critical step was that of skills transfer.

Other panelists included entrepreneur and founder of Caribbeing Shelley Worrell and Managing Director of Hopkins Consulting Group Gerry Hopkin.

They agreed that younger travellers were eager to get an authentic Caribbean experience, but pointed to the need for regional governments to facilitate that through policies that protect cultural and heritage offerings.

“On the private sector side, we need people from the Diaspora to come forward as exporters back home, and as importers to import these cultural and heritage products, to market those and distribute those and retail those. Those are low hanging fruits,” said Hopkin.

Responding to a question during the event that was dotted with passionate outbursts from some Diaspora representatives, the minister of tourism, information and broadcast in St Lucia, Dominic Fedee, expressed disappointment that regional governments did not show greater appreciation for the role that culture could play in the development of the Caribbean tourism offering.

“I have been very disappointed in how we have sold ourselves to the world. I think that sometimes what happens is that we do not believe in ourselves as Caribbean people,” said Fedee.

“We must be very deliberate in ensuring that not just the traditional tourism sectors [are promoted], but we must ensure that culture and heritage is at the forefront,” he insisted.

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