David Jessop - Caribbean Council
OVER THE last few weeks, several Caribbean researchers and academics have raised with me the chaotic state of Caribbean tourism statistics and tourism data.
The issue arose because one researcher producing an important study for a major government reviewing its overall development strategy towards the region, contacted me and others to say that they had been unable to access any statistics from the main regional bodies that hold them.
Then when the individual concerned did manage to do so by a roundabout route, they recognized not just the inconsistencies, but the absence, in several cases, of any explanation as to why significant variations were occurring year-on-year.
What emerged from this and subsequent exchanges with others about Caribbean tourism data were two separate but related trends.
The first was that the paucity of reliable Caribbean-generated information in a significant number of nations meant that objective decision-making by governments or the private sector on tourism-related issues, such as competitiveness, taxation, marketing, and investment, was likely to be unreliable.
The second was that external development agencies, including bodies involved in macroeconomic analysis of overall Caribbean economic performance, are developing partly out of frustration new ways to accumulate and analyze Caribbean data for regional and international use.
What was striking was evidence that some nations – not Jamaica – were variously subjecting publication to lengthy bureaucratic scrutiny, handing responsibility to independent agencies, were publishing figures in hard-to-access formats or were simply avoiding publication at all for reasons of maladministration or political expediency. The situation was, one correspondent noted, even worse when it came to reliable expenditure data.
These are matters of some importance, as there are indications that the region’s tourism sector may be performing less well than recent headlines suggest. This month, for example, the World Tourism Barometer, produced by the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, indicated that overall arrivals into the Caribbean have so far this year fallen by eight per cent.
All of this may be about to change. The growing availability of big data and more sophisticated algorithms now make it possible to produce indicators in much shorter periods of time using consistent information from multiple non-Caribbean data sources.
Since 2015, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been producing ‘A Week on the Beach’ largely for internal purposes. This is an index of the nominal cost of a one-week beach holiday in 18 small and large Caribbean destinations.
Inspired by the ‘Big Mac Index’, it measures the price of a basket of typical expenditures during a beach holiday based on three-star hotels, taxi fares, beverages, and meals, but does not include air travel costs. Despite some shortcomings, the figures demonstrate that the nominal cost of an average, one-week beach holiday in the Caribbean is consistently higher than on average elsewhere in the world.
The importance of this and its policy implications emerged in a recent webcast, ‘A Week on the Beach’, led by the Trinidadian economist Marla Dukharan.
What, in outline, this revealed was that on average Caribbean three-star hotel costs more than in almost all other beach destinations; the Caribbean is 30 to 50 per cent more expensive than Central America and Mexico; that the Asia Pacific region was still the cheapest region in the world; the average cost of a week in Cuba is comparable to Central America and significantly lower than in other sample Caribbean countries; the number of flights rather than airlines positively impact on competitiveness; the number of rooms a destination has may not be significant; and the overall findings were largely consistent over the four-year period surveyed.
The broadcast, which can be seen on YouTube, indicated that at a staff level, the IMF is now working towards developing a more sophisticated understanding of tourism in ways that will eventually allow the findings to be built into future economic models. To achieve this, they intend making more use of ‘big data’ and are now teaming up with TripAdvisor and others in the industry to utilize their statistics and research to support the development of a more sophisticated analytic process.
The exercise still has shortcomings. For example, a separate methodology is required to value the competitiveness of all-inclusive hotels and cruise ships; an approach is required that can quantify less tangible impacts such as crime; and separate modelling is required to analyze the impact on arrivals of government taxes on aviation.
This new big data-led approach is welcome, particularly if it enables the region and those beyond to understand what is really happening to Caribbean tourism, the likely impact of budgetary decisions, and how the industry relates to wider Caribbean economic performance.