Exclusive Interview with CTO's Hugh Riley
Once again, Caribbean News Digital attended SOTIC and sat down with one of the most prominent voices of Caribbean travel: Hugh Riley, secretary general and chief executive officer of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. The rebuilding of the region’s travel industry in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria is a key element in the minds of all stakeholders. Mr. Riley spoke candidly on this and other matters in this exclusive interview.
By Veronica de Santiago
How was SOTIC?
For us it has been very satisfying. It’s been a high-energy conference with lots of emotion, lots of interaction and, thankfully, lots of participation. We were happy to report that we passed the 350 mark. So we have now 357 participants in this conference.
The conference has had very good content, it’s had large participation, tremendous engagement and there’s been a lot of excitement at this year’s State of the Tourism Industry Conference in Grenada.
After the hurricanes, what are the most affected islands?
There is a list of thirteen countries that have been impacted in one way or another. On our website, you the ones that have suffered a tremendous amount of damage. It’s widely known that Puerto Rico, Anguilla, Barbuda, U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands. We’ve seen those that have suffered the most severe damage. We saw the damage in southern Bahamas as well. We’ve got a fairly comprehensive list of where we are now in terms of those that were severely impacted.
What’s important to know is that the recovery effort is continuing, so we can continue to give our various publics a sense of how that is progressing and when various countries will be up and running again.
The main message in SOTIC has been that the Caribbean is open for business and you said that the best thing to do for the Caribbean is to visit the Caribbean. It’s also great news that the other countries, brothers and sisters of those affected islands, are really helping. “The region is one sea, one Caribbean, one voice” you said.
I think there is a couple of things that play here. First, Caribbean people have rallied around our sisters and brother in the region to make sure that we’ve been able to offer whatever assistance we could in this very difficult times.
That assistance has taken the form of relief supplies, humanitarian gestures of one kind or another, the movement of people from an affected area to other parts of the Caribbean, some of our countries have taken families and kids in, some places where schools have been devastated, kids have gone to another island.
The Caribbean as a region has rallied around each other. Some of us at the CTO working with CDEMA, Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, and were on the spot to see some of this in action. I was privileged at one stage after the first hurricane came through, which was Irma and affected Puerto Rico. Immediately after that hurricane, Puerto Rico sent supplies to the island of Anguilla. An airplane arrived with supplies. They had been affected, but they found in their hearts, their pockets and wallets the means to help a neighbor.
It was a heart-warming story and not an isolated one. There are other stories like that throughout the Caribbean. The Caribbean is extremely grateful to have this kind of spirit of brotherly love in the region.
We also mustn’t forget to thank the global community, who’ve also come to our assistance. In some of our affected countries they’ve had affiliation with international assistance because if the territory was French, Dutch, British or U.S.-affiliated territory, as it’s the case with the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, then it’s obvious we are the first phone call we get made.
Dominica was a severely affected country during the hurricanes and the country needs lots of help, lots of assistance. Antigua and Barbuda is one country and Barbuda got severely impacted by the hurricanes.
There are some countries standing on their own. Bahamas is another example of that. We’ve got countries that have reached out to their mainland affiliates in one way or another and we have countries that have been able to depend upon the global community, as well as regional assistance.
Cuba has been affected as well, but they are recovering. We learned that the island will be completely recovered by November 15th. That’s good news. Is Cuba still a challenge for small islands around because of the number of tourists that want to go to Cuba on U.S. flights?
The “Cuba Effect” has not been a disadvantage to most of the Caribbean. The opening of Cuba and its relation with the United States is fluid and is changing as we speak. What the attention to Cuba has done is to bring more attention to the Caribbean as a tourism destination. Business to the Caribbean has increased.
Remember that, in this discussion, we’re really focusing on U.S. travel because Cuba has been a leader in Caribbean tourism for a very long time and has attracted Canadian traffic, British traffic and European traffic. That has been shared around the Caribbean. The only new phenomenon regarding to Cuba is large numbers of Americans going to Cuba, but U.S. travelers have been fairly well dispersed around the Caribbean as well for many years.
I think that the net result is that business to the Caribbean has increased and U.S. business has increased to most of the countries within the Caribbean, including Cuba.
Someone was asking about the CTO website. It’s just in English and the Caribbean is more than English-speaking countries. It’s Spanish, Dutch, French. Is there any project or something to make it global, in other languages, so the information could be taken worldwide?
The effort is to make sure that we can translate the contents of that site into all languages, including Chinese. It makes sense that we should try and get there. That’s a part of the effort to find the funding to do what we really are to be doing as a region: to market the Caribbean property to all the segments we are trying to attract to the Caribbean.
We can’t just be relying upon the member countries of the CTO. We have to find the resources to do it with them and on their behalf. There will come a time, hopefully not in the distant future, when every website of every Caribbean country and every website the CTO has around the world is in every language.
What is available now is that there is a menu that allows people to click on where they are coming from or click on the language they are interested in so the site appears in that language. We must make that happen everywhere, for every site of the CTO. That’s a goal which we have.