Address to National Tourism Stakeholders Meeting - September 18, 2001
Hon. Menissa Rambally
Minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation
National Tourism Stakeholders Meeting
Sandals St. Lucia Golf Resort & Spa
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
Ladies and Gentlemen, thousands of St. Lucians and scores of expatriate investors are waiting with eager anticipation on the outcome of this meeting here today.
I do not expect a road map for the future direction of tourism in St. Lucia to emerge from this single session, because the environment we are meeting under is very dynamic at the moment. Even as we speak the threat of war hangs over our heads.
Ladies and Gentlemen, whatever may have divided us in the past, today we are brought together in pursuit of one goal…SURVIVAL!
If ever unity of purpose was required in the tourism industry in St. Lucia, it is now. Each one of us personifies a simple link. A link that by itself might be inconsequential to the turn of events and the fortunes of this industry, but which, as part of a national chain, is vital to attaining the goal that ensures, not profits and prosperity, but SURIVAL, in the period ahead.
From the outset, therefore, let me assure you that I have not come here today with any magic formula. No single person can have the answers to the problems that beset our industry today, simply because the magnitude of those problems is yet undefined.
We operate in a very fluid and dynamic environment where situations and scenarios are changing from minute to minute and hour to hour.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we are meeting today to discuss nation-crushing events. The economies of several small states around the world can be destroyed as a result of the selfish and senseless act of a small group of individuals who hold no value whatsoever for human life.
Perhaps I should rephrase that statement. Because while these brazen terrorists valued not, the lives of their followers, and while they valued not, the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children going about their lawful business in the United States, they themselves now fear the terror of revenge and are huddled together in parts unknown, fearful of their own mortality.
A few weeks ago, our efforts were dedicated at putting together a plan to respond to the downturn in tourism arrivals and to deal with the shortage of flights particularly from the United Kingdom, as a result of the withdrawal of the charter services.
The St. Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association and the St. Lucia Tourist Board, came up with a sound plan to put additional resources in the market to stimulate demand, in order to stem the flow of the decline in arrivals.
Also, the St. Lucia Tourist Board was able to secure a commitment from Virgin Atlantic to put on a new flight this winter to make up for the loss of the UK charters. Plans for the implementation of the US Airways twice-weekly flight from Philadelphia to St. Lucia were being finalized by the various agencies of the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation.
We thought then, we had the situation in hand. While we did not expect a significant turnaround in tourism arrivals during this summer, we were optimistic for the coming winter, based on our new marketing strategy and the increased airlift out of the US and the UK.
However, last week’s terrorist attacks where hijackers took control of four aircrafts on domestic routes in the US and used them as missiles against selected targets, pose a new and unprecedented threat to the global travel industry and has dealt a crippling blow to St. Lucia’s tourist industry and our national economy.
The hijacking of the four planes is a direct attack on the travel industry, and for the first time, the US closed its airspace, and air traffic came to a complete halt in the United States of America.
This has had an immediate impact on St. Lucia. The hotels could not receive new guests, and the existing ones could not leave. That situation has improved somewhat with the resumption of scheduled air transport services in and out of the United States, but already signs are that our worse fears in terms of the possible impact on tourism are being realized.
Yesterday, while we were battling over options for the resuscitation and revitalization of air transport, the news came of the cancellation of some cruise ship activities.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines was forced to cancel cruises this week, because arrivals were poor due to the fear of travel by would-be cruisers, who needed of necessity to travel by air to reach the docks at Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
I make that point to stress that this is not merely a problem for land-based tourism but for tourism in general in St. Lucia and the wider Caribbean. I am aware that already this week one major Caribbean hotel chain has closed one of its properties in a sister island and no one knows for whom the next bell tolls.
I understand the calls for national leadership to try to help those who have invested in St. Lucia. I have called this meeting today in the hope that – in this time of adversity - we can rise to the occasion of uniting as stakeholders in the common cause of SURVIVAL.
Last Friday I convened a meeting of civil aviation, ports of entry and security officials with the view of devising an immediate plan of action for the security concerns of our nation and those who do business with St. Lucia.
During the plenary session that follows, I will invite a representative of St. Lucia Air and Sea Ports Authority to brief this audience on the short and medium term measures which have been agreed upon and are already either in effect or at an advanced stage of implementation.
Over the weekend I held widespread consultations with sectoral interests in St. Lucia, the region, the United States and Europe with a view to ascertaining views and perspectives on how this crisis has impacted and is likely to exacerbate an already depressed period for tourism activity.
My series of consultations climaxed late into the night, last evening when I met with the Hon. Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and we reviewed the gravity of the situation confronting the industry.
I am pleased therefore to report to you today that our deliberations this afternoon have his full sanction and support and that a thorough review of our deliberations today will become Item No. 1 at the next meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers.
In other words, Ladies and Gentlemen, your concerns are priority. This is not a usual situation and the Government is not approaching the crisis you face in a usual manner. Behind the scenes we are working on several fronts to develop options to address the most unusual times and circumstances.
I know that hotels, small, medium and large, are hurting. I know that the outlook is grim. I know there are and will be further cancellations of bookings. I know the sector will need tangible assistance and that, that assistance must correctly start with Government.
Already, I can indicate to you that the joint proposal submitted a few weeks ago relative a heightened marketing programme by the St. Lucia Tourist Board and the St. Lucia Hotels and Tourism Association has been approved. Last evening I was assured by the Hon. Minister of Finance that the $3.5 million we sought, has been secured and disbursements have started.
Furthermore, since last Thursday, the Cabinet of Ministers was put on alert to be prepared to examine further proposals, from a forum of this nature, relative the short and medium term approaches that can be taken to minimize the fall out and impact of this crisis.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to caution you, however, that all spheres of social and economic activity will be under pressure at this time as a result of the tension and uncertainty that surrounds this particular incident in the United States.
Unfortunately, but I guess consequentially, there is likely to be a worsening of international tension as the United States go in search of the perpetrators of this hideous crime. Therefore, in your demands today, I expect you to be fair and just, tempering your urgent needs by the requirements of balance and the overall economic good.
I know that as business owners, operators and managers you are only too well aware that Government’s revenues and cash flow will be further undermined by diminished earnings from tourism.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have called you here this afternoon for us to get down to the business of devising a plan of action to safeguard the integrity of our industry and protect against the suspension of service by any of our establishments.
As partners in this process, we have got to be frank and upfront with each other. I am prepared to fight your battles, but you have got to appreciate the environment in which we operate and the many and varied interests which I, as a minister of government, have to attend to.
The bottom line is that I do not wish any further closures, no matter how small or large, in the tourism sector. I know that profits are down and in some cases non-existent, but I ask you to hold in there and fight. No man made crisis should be allowed to stymie the growth and development of this industry.
The Government is prepared to do all in its power to assist you in keeping your doors open. You in turn must also demonstrate the strength and resilience to stand and fight in the face of adversity.
This is a traumatic period for all concerned about the growth and development of our country.
My thoughts go out at this time to the thousands of workers in the industry who are overcome with emotion and concern over the obvious downturn in business.
As employers we cannot afford to let them down, in this, their hour of need. If conditions are hard on you as business people, then consider for one moment how it must be on the housekeeper, cook, waitress or gardener who is the sole bread winner in a family and who is depending on you, as the source of sustenance, for that family’s daily needs.
As a Government we will do all in our power to assist over the coming weeks and months. Where we cannot act on our own, we will offer facilitatory services to ensure that your views are heard and your interest is served.
I have personally spoken to several of you over the past six days and I am fully aware of the likely areas of concern which you will raise in plenary. I make myself fully available to offer any advice or support within my capacity.
Frankly, I have come to this meeting with an open mind…not with a blank cheque, but with an open mind. I am prepared to discuss and evaluate each proposal on merit and to lobby the Cabinet, the Minister of Finance and all relevant interest groups for meaningful areas of assistance on your behalf.
My job will be made easier however if you bear in mind that the Government’s forecasted revenues were based on the assumption of a thriving tourism industry. Therefore if you are not doing the business that was anticipated, then logically the Government is not collecting the monies that were anticipated.
Like you, therefore, the Government will also be hard pressed to do all that it would like to do in the circumstance. Let us be responsible in our demands.
There are several options that we can pursue. There is the option of our institutionalizing the Task Force, which has already been established to monitor developments on a daily basis and to stay in contact with our partners in the United States, Canada, UK and other vital markets.
There is the option of our diverting some marketing funds to the UK and Canadian markets to capitalize on the business that would have been lost to the United States.
There is the option of our still going after the US market in the hope of enticing Americans to get away from the stress, hurt and discomfort of the present situation and recharging, as it were, in the safe and tranquil Caribbean.
There is then the issue of the plight of regional and international carriers. Already we have learnt of the downsizing of Continental Airlines and the cessation of service in the US by Midway Airlines.
Even the mighty American Airlines has announced that it will no longer implement the new routes it had planned to introduce.
We must therefore make provision in our planning for BWIA and Air Jamaica who have served us so well in the past and who undoubtedly will be adversely affected and severely tested by this new development.
The issues and the possibilities are countless, but we cannot become paralysed nor overwhelmed by the situation. Quitting is not an option.
Failure is not an option. We must now marshal all of our resources, not least of which are our people, and confront these events with strength, purpose and determination.
There are those who say we should sit quietly and watch as international developments unfold. I say the opposite. We must plan now for any and all eventualities and we must have as our theme over the next few weeks the message of DETERMINATION, UNITY AND SURIVAL.
Now is the time to put our petty differences aside and commit our precious resources towards a unified and concerted effort to overcome this unique international moment of truth.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank each and every one of you for coming out this afternoon and I look forward over the next two hours to a meaningful and productive session of brainstorming.
Let us retreat for a while and discuss St. Lucia’s response to the nation crushing events that afflict the economic lifeblood of our country.
In these times I take strength from the inspired words of Abraham Lincoln in his first Annual Message to the United States Congress, "The struggle of today is not altogether for today…it is for a vast future also. With reliance on Providence, all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us".
Let us rise to the challenge, partners in the tourism sector, and demonstrate to the world that we may be down at the moment, but we are certainly not out.
I thank you.
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