The Caribbean is considered to be one of the most tourism dependent regions in the world (Andrew, 2007). This region encompasses some 34 countries and areas bordering the Caribbean Sea, and includes island destinations such as Jamaica, Aruba, Barbados and Grenada, mainland territories such as Belize, Guyana and Suriname, and specific tourism regions of mainland territories such as Cancun and Cozumel. The development of the tourism sector in the Caribbean began in earnest in the second half of the twentieth century (Patullo, 1996), as nations, both older and emerging, sought to throw off the legacies of slavery, colonialism and the plantation economy. By the mid-1990s most countries in the Caribbean had replaced agriculture with tourism as the primary engine of economic growth.
Many Caribbean destinations suffer severely from the impacts of natural events such as hurricanes, floods and seismic and volcanic activities. The Caribbean tourism industry has also been subject to a number of economic shocks, the most notable of which were the slowdown occasioned by the terrorist attacks on the United States of America in September 2001 and, more recently, by the economic crisis which impacted the global economy from mid-2008 until towards the end of 2009.
The objective of this paper is to assess the pivotal role of the tourism sector in the broader developmental experience of the Caribbean subregion and, based on this, to examine the implications of the global economic crisis on the current and future economic development of the Caribbean.
The discussion is presented in four sections. Section One briefly chronicles the Caribbean development experience and assesses the historical antecedents which led to the emergence of the tourism sector as the current engine of growth. In Section Two, the central role of the tourism sector is examined, with a view towards identifying the key economic elements which are currently at work to sustain it. The analysis here, draws heavily from Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle (TALC) model, through which aspects of Caribbean global tourism competitiveness are assessed. Section Three looks at the impact of the global economic crisis on the tourism sector, and the Caribbean response in the context of the tourism sector’s global competitiveness. Section Four draws conclusions about the future evolution of the tourism sector, given the emerging economic, environmental and social challenges for the Caribbean in the immediate future.