The suits gave it away. All the other details were right, though: soca, steelpan, mas, rum punch by the gallon – just what you need for some kind of fete. This, however, was the Caribbean Street Party at the World Travel Market, and the revellers wining and waving their flags on the impromptu dancefloor were outwardly respectable tour operators, travel agents, tourist board personnel and media people. Music, by the way, was from the excellent new band Tropical Storm, plus steelpan by Johann Chuckaree from Phase II Pan Groove Steel Orchestra. At 8pm CSI Steelband led a mass of masqueraders and revellers out of the hall and on to an invitation-only event at the nearby Caribbean Scene restaurant.
The party, organised by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) on 7 November was just one of many events taking place in the ExCeL exhibition centre in London’s Docklands as part of this four-day international trade show for the travel and tourism sectors. It was certainly huge fun, but its success will be measured in flights booked, hotel beds filled and business done in an industry that is vital for the Caribbean islands’ economies.
National colours on the islands’ stands were, for once, overwhelmed by a single hue – and it wasn’t the blue of the Caribbean sea and sky, nor even the white of palm-fringed sandy beaches. This year’s fashion-statement colour is green. The action has moved from the seashore to the interior, and eco-tourism is the buzzword on everyone’s lips.
In this scramble for the ‘green dollar’, Guyana can perhaps feel a little smug, because it has been flying the flag of eco-tourism for many years, while Dominica has long been billing itself as “the nature island of the Caribbean”, but it is interesting to see how some previously beach-focused countries are now extolling the wonders of their waterfalls and forests. Trekking, adventure trails and wildlife-watching are being promoted as the thinking person’s alternative to a slow roasting on a poolside deckchair.
‘Eco-Tobago’, as T&T’s smaller island has branded itself, is a “nirvana for naturalists” that boasts the Western Hemisphere’s first legally protected rainforest. Saint Lucia is urging visitors to “go twitching” (birdspotting), zip-lining through the trees and hiking through the rainforest. The volcanic landscape of La Désirade, Guadeloupe, has been declared a geological reserve that is home to “astonishing vegetation” as well as iguanas and agoutis. On the jungly Guyana stand, the knowledgeable people from Rupununi Trails enthused about the wildlife to be seen from their river tours, which apparently could include anything from a ringed antpipit to a long-billed gnatwren. The country’s natural beauties were evident from the presence of Miss Guyana UK contestants too.
So far so green, but another colour was on display too – the deep blue of the underwater world. Over the past decade, diving has developed into a major attraction promoted by almost every Caribbean tourist board. Here, too, the lure for the visitor is the prospect of exploring the unknown. Why sit on the sand gazing out to sea when you could be immersing yourself in the depths, making friends with exotic fish? A bright red crab has pride of place on the cover of the latest brochure from St Vincent and the Grenadines – a “Caribbean diving capital” filled with “azure allure”, we’re told – while Tobago can claim the famous Buccoo Reef and the world’s largest brain coral as its own. For the fashionable tourist, scuba gear and flippers have become de rigueur.
Tourism is as competitive as any other industry, pitching one country against another, but there is scope for co-operation too, and perhaps that has never been so important as during this global recession. The CTO’s role is to market the whole Caribbean region, which has to attract visitors away from alternative, up-and-coming destinations in south-east Asia, the Indian Ocean and South America. The organisation’s brochure allows anyone thinking of taking a holiday in the region to compare summaries of the islands (plus Guyana and Venezuela) and it includes an events listing featuring some of the best-known carnivals.
Carnivals do feature in most Caribbean countries’ marketing, as you’d expect, highlighted at the WTM by the presence of a pair of attractive masqueraders on the Trinidad & Tobago stand and two gombeys on the Bermuda stand. However, Carnival was not a subject the tourist boards went out of their way to discuss. That is probably because of its very success – why promote something that year after year can be relied upon to fill every hotel and guest house in the country? No wonder countries outside the region are keen to capture a little of the carnival magic for themselves, just as Seychelles has done so successfully for the past two years, closely followed by Mauritius with its inaugural event in 2012.
For Soca News, however, the strongest competition on 7 November was for the stand producing the best rum punch. After considerable sampling, and in this writer’s entirely personal, quite possibly biased, opinion, the winner is… Trinidad & Tobago.