"I think we are long past the days of colonialism and many tourism-related entities are owned and well-managed by locals."
Ms Gail Henry, has been functioning as the Caribbean Tourism Organization's (CTO) Sustainable Tourism Product Specialist since 2009. Her functions include managing the CTO's annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development, Caribbean Excellence in Sustainable Tourism Awards, Sustainable Tourism Technical Committee and coordinating its new sustainable tourism newswire. She was the Senior Tourism Advisor with the Ministry of Tourism of Trinidad and Tobago from 2002 - 2007 and managed the Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles' sustainable development programme of the UNDP from 1995 - 2001. Ms Henry's academic background includes a BSc Economics and an International MBA with a tourism management specialization from the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and a MSc Tourism Marketing from the University of Surrey, UK. She is currently a Judge for the 2012 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards.
ECOCLUB.com: For the past three years you have held a very prestigious as well as instrumental position as the Caribbean Tourism Organization's (CTO) Sustainable Tourism Product Specialist. During this period have you witnessed any progress in the sustainability of Caribbean Tourism? Do you see a need for tourism degrowth in some Caribbean destinations?
Gail Henry: Encouraging and facilitating tourism sustainability is at the heart of the mandate of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. The Caribbean is often cited as one of the world's most tourism dependant regions with tourism being a significant economic driver in most of our destinations. The Caribbean Tourism Organization developed a Regional Sustainable Tourism Policy Framework and related tools to guide our 30 Member countries in enhancing their national tourism policies from a sustainable tourism perspective. Since 2008, we have seen intensified efforts by Caribbean destinations to incorporate the policy guidelines into their national tourism policies and programmes and to develop more innovative sustainable tourism products such as an underwater sculpture museum in Grenada which aids coral reef regeneration. There has also been greater efforts by some hotels and attractions to monitor and imporve their energy efficiency and carbon footprints, utilize renewabale energy sources and obtain green certification for instance.The annual CTO Sustainable Tourism Awards recognize and applaud such efforts by the sector and encourage them to act as champions to encourage other operators to follow their lead.
The Caribbean has had a long history of attracting tourists from all corners of the globe given its naturally beautiful landscapes, legendary wamth and hospitality of Craibbean people and cultural diversity. For the forseeable future, this phenomenon will not change. However, the future of Caribbean tourism will require the greater diversification of tourism product offerings so that our visitors will be exposed to the full range of experiences that Caribbean destinations can provide. By expanding the pull factors beyond the sun-sea-sand products, visitors to the Caribbean will be better able to understand that our destinations are far from generic - our sub-cultures, cuisines, lnguages, dialects, music, cultural traditions, architecture etc. are what separates the Caribbean from any other region of the world. In order to capitalize on this, the creation of better linkages between the tourism and other sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing, as opposed to its outright degrowth is possibly the best way forward. This strategy will create more economic options and livelihood alternatives for those destinations that are highly tourism dependant.
ECOCLUB.com: In what ways does the CTO try to be transparent and accountable to the people and the tourism workers of the Caribbean, as opposed to the needs of the private sector?
Gail Henry: A successful tourism industry goes beyond the visitor arrival numbers. Tourism sustainbility requires a balance between economic, social and environmental considerations and goals. While profitability is also necessary for the tourism industry to thrive, we encourage our Member countries to engage in public-private-non-government cooperative initiatives. At the regional level, the CTO leads by example, through collaborating with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association on initiatives to market Craibbean destintaions and to attract and facilitate tourism-related investment in our respective Memeber countries. Both organizations provide opportunities for internships, scholarships and human resource development and we continually strive to find solutions to HRD challenges through Think Tanks and fora such as our annual Tourism Human Resource Development conference. The goal is to not only strive to attain service excellence and total visitor satisfaction, but also to enhance the working experience and satisfaction levels of tourism and hospitality sector employees. This requires a joint public-private sector effort as the private sector is equally important in creating a successful tourism industry.
ECOCLUB.com: To most potential visitors, especially 'mainstream' ones, all Caribbean islands look more or less the same (same case as for example the Aegean Islands), it is sometimes hard to detect the unique local culture of each island through website photos and travel agency brochures. Has there been any deliberate diversification process in their tourism 'product' of each island in recent years, so that destinations do not end up directly competing with each other?
As I mentioned earlier, each Caribbean island has a unique identity which can be marketed and used to differentiate our destinations from that of other regions. At the regional and national level, destination marketing efforts do highlight these differences. The tag lines of the various Caribbean destinations are oftentimes the first indicator of these differences e.g. Dominica as "the nature island" and Jamaica where "once you go you know". Destinations will naturally compete with each other but many also engage in multi-destination tourism marketing where its feasible because of geographical or cultural linkages and our Member countries are marketed under a Caribbean brand with a unique logo which accompanies their individual destination logos. The more a visitor travels throughout the Caribbean, they will recognize the differences between the countries and between the Craibbean and other tropical destinations. Not even the beaches are generic from one Caribbean country to another as there are black, gold, white, brown and pink sand beaches and even the vegetation on beaches vary which creates different settings.
ECOCLUB.com: You have held various senior government posts in tourism in Trinidad and Tobago and in Aruba for many years. Which was the most difficult challenge you faced and what did you enjoy most?
Gail Henry: I have worked for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago as a Senior Tourism Advisor and also with the UNDP where I managed the programmes for Aruba and the former Netherlands Antilles. Working at the national, regional and international levels are three totally different, challenging and fulfilling expereinces but I have enjoyed them all. This is a tough question but what I enjoy most is being able to interact with people from different cultures and fortunately all three experiences have allowed me to do gain great cultural insights and all three positions have allowed me to travel to some parts of the globe that I would not have visited otherwise. But my current job at CTO is by far the most challenging - with 30 Member countries with different tourism products, different needs and high expectations, you have to be at the top of your game - I'm always learning new things, meeting interesting people and constantly trying to find solutions to new challenges. There literally is never a dull moment for my colleagues and me at CTO. It never ceases to amaze me at how dedicated the CTO staff are and how much we go beyond the call of duty for our Members because we enjoy what we do and generally want the best outcome for Caribbean tourism.
ECOCLUB.com: Some claim, an exaggeration perhaps, that Caribbean tourism (and tourism at large) is a continuation of colonialism by other, softer, means - tourism being the new plantation. How would you evaluate the role of tourism multinationals, if you do accept the term, in the Caribbean region so far? As a rule, do such large foreign groups reinvest locally and give back to the community or do they avoid taxes and repatriate most of their profits?
Gail Henry: I really cannot speak to this issue without having the facts before me, but in general, for the tourism sector in the Caribbean, many large hotel chains have a mix of expatriate and local managers and staff. These chains often have the resources to reinvest locally through varous CSR initiatives, for instance, donating to charitable organizations, sponsoring activities, buying local products and services, or contributing to community development needs. I am unable to say what happens wtih respect to their taxes and profits but each country has laws that govern these issues which should be enforced. I think we are long past the days of colonialism and many tourism-related entities are owned and well-managed by locals.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much