The recent CARICOM Conference on Sport Tourism in Barbados examined a number of options in respect of the potential that exists in the Caribbean for the systematic development of a viable industry that adds value to the respective national economies.
The meeting lamented the seeming inability of some countries to take full advantage of what currently exists.
The Caribbean is surrounded by water and hence the most common feature for sport and by extension sport tourism in the lovely water facilities around us. This is the main reason that we find a range of water sports being practiced formally and informally in so many Caribbean islands. The basic infrastructure already exists.
Some countries have annual Regattas for yachts, mistrals and speed boats with an accompanying plethora of on-shore activities that help to make the event more attractive and appealing to visitors and locals alike.
Other Caribbean countries have major fishing tournaments, which hold their own adherents. Yet others gain much attention for what they have to offer windsurfers and jet skiers. Snorkeling, diving and canoeing are also proving to be quite popular in the region attracting scores of visitors.
Open water swimming is now an Olympic event this may well prove the next frontier in the use of the existing water facilities.
In the case of St Vincent and the Grenadines we have always made use of the water around us. The annual Bequia Regatta stands out as the nation’s premier water event and has much to offer if there ever comes into being a national sports tourism policy that recognizes its true worth.
The annual Easterval festivities in Union are essentially water-based as also is the annual Regatta on Canouan. The addition of the Miss Easterval competition has long since proven to be a boon for the organisers.
Notably, the existing water sports engaged in by St Vincent and the Grenadines do nt seem to have been considered sufficiently viable as part of a sports tourism product which can impact the Vincentian economy.
The presence of Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz and later, the Soca Warriors of Trinidad and Tobago on the Football World Cup stage has led to greater recognition of the potential that exists in the Caribbean in this sport. The infrastructure exists in many of our countries although they differ radically in their standing.
Trinidad and Tobago has taken the lead in the provision of world class football facilities when it hosted the FIFA Men Under 17 World Cup some years ago, The government constructed four international standard football venues in addition to the existing Hasely Crawford Stadium and the excellent Queen’s Park Oval. It is the possession of these very facilities that has earned them the right to host the World Women’s Under 17 World Cup later this year during the period 5 – 25 September.
Jamaica, Barbados, St Kitts and Nevis and several of the other islands in the region also boast good football facilities approved by FIFA and which can be used to attract international competition as well as play host to English football teams in the off-season and American Football (NFL) teams in their off-season.
In the case of St Vincent and the Grenadines we stand alone with the Arnos Vale Playing field which is the home of Cricket and the football fraternity must wait each year on the West Indies Cricket Board to determine its annual calendar, which is usually quite late, before determining whether it is possible to bid for any major football event to be hosted here. The football fraternity here cannot go ahead and bid several years in advance for any event unless it comes late in the year when cricket has been completed in the country.
The absence of a national stadium has proven to be a blight on the capacity of the local football fraternity in respect of benefitting from the vast sports tourism potential of football events.
The Caribbean somehow still seems to think that cricket is more popular than any other sport. This has long since changed. There are however numerous world-class cricket facilities spread around the region. Many of these have since been upgraded and new ones built in preparation for the region’s hosting of the Cricket World Cup in 2007.
While the presence of the facilities mean that we are able to access international competitions and host teams in their of-season the experiences of the region in the abandoned matches in Jamaica and more recently Antigua and Barbuda suggest to the international cricketing fraternity our lack of readiness to offer consistently high-quality facilities for top level competitions.
If we are to take sports tourism seriously we cannot afford to offer visitors facilities that are at one level this year and another the following year.
Track and Field
The Caribbean already possesses several international standard competition venues for track and field competition. The world-renowned annual Carifta Games has been hosted by countries of all sizes with the Turks and Caicos being the smallest yet to do so. Jamaica has thus far been the only Caribbean country to host an IAAF World Championships. They hosted the World Junior Championships in Athletics in 2002. Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and Barbados have hosted the Central American and Caribbean Age Group, Senior and Junior and Pan American Junior Championships. Grenada has hosted the CAC Seniors and Age Group. Several others have hosted the Age Group and Junior Championships.
In a previous Column it was noted that this country stands alongside only Guyana, Montserrat and Anguilla in the Caribbean as not in possession of synthetic athletics track. We are losing out on the sport tourism potential that is being capitalized on by our neighbours in this regard.
Road racing has proven to be quite important to Puerto Rico, home to the world’s most popular and exciting 10K, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago on an annual basis. In these countries the governmental authorities understand the importance of these events to the image of the country internationally and ensure that they work to ensure venues on the nation’s roads that are free of traffic for the duration of the event thereby guaranteeing participants the requisite level of safety consistent with international standards.
In the case of St Vincent and the Grenadines the first response is that it is virtually impossible to provide such routes and participants run the risk of being involved in accidents or running the long way around corners like vehicles rather than cut corners as is the global norm.
Other Outdoor sports
Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas have done particularly well in the provision of major international facilities for golf. Barbados hoisted the World Cup Golf Tournament in December 2006, an event that proved to be a resounding success. This sport attracts a very high profile clientele capable of mega spending in the host country.
Many Caribbean countries possess excellent Tennis facilities and we can boast that St Vincent and the Grenadine sis among the leaders in this regard. Many host ITF competitions and here we once hosted the Americas Zone Group 4 competition in the Davis Cup. Unfortunately in the absence of any sports tourism policy we were unable to reap any real benefits. Indeed we did a very poor job by scheduling some matches in the morning when people were at work and not enough in the evening when people were available. We also did nothing to promote the event internationally.
St Vincent and the Grenadines has been particularly fortunate to have had Ole George and Joel Butcher engaging in remarkable walking feats. Unfortunately no one associated with the tourism industry here saw any benefits being derived from their activities and outstanding achievements. Indeed the story of Ole George and Joel Butcher epitomises the extent to which the old adage – ‘where there is no vision a people perish – rings true.
Several Caribbean countries have been able to construct international standard Indoor sports arenas. These can be used for a variety of sports – Basketball, Boxing, Netball, Table Tennis, Volleyball, as well as all of the martial arts disciplines. Some countries have Olympic Size Indoor Swimming Pools.
The existence of the aforementioned Indoor sports facilities of international standard allows the Caribbean to play host to regional and international competitions. In 2008 Trinidad and Tobago hosted one of the qualifying Boxing competitions for the Beijing Olympics. The same country hosted the Pan American Women Boxing Championships in the latter part of the same year.
Our Indoor sports facilities can be an attraction to international teams – schools, colleges and professionals during their off-season when they are preparing the early part of their training.
Over the years the region has also found growing interest in general fitness as the world became concerned about the well being of the population. Gym facilities have been developed in virtually all Caribbean countries at varying levels of professionalism. These facilities are also an essential element of sport tourism. Visitors like to know that they can have access to quality gym facilities equipped with professionally trained staff.
The Caribbean is already in possession of a number of international standard sport facilities which can become the platform for the establishment of a relatively string sport tourism programme.
Sport is often deemed a unifying force. The Caribbean can and must engage in a systematic strategy aimed at facilitating the exploitation of the vast sport tourism potential that exists.
The recent CARICOM Sports Conference is an important starting point. The way forward is critically important to the broader issue of the region’s overall development.