Mr. Colin C. James

    CEO at the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority (ABTA)

    1. You have been at the head of the ABTA since its establishment in February 2009. Could you please tell us about the history and background of ABTA?

    The Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority (ABTA) was created to lead the efforts in destination marketing and to promote Antigua and Barbuda as an aspirational tourist destination. Having a dedicated organization to do this is a proven formula which is used by a lot of countries in the Caribbean and throughout the world. It is a semi-autonomous statutory body which is governed by a Board of Directors with mixed representation of both key public and private sector stakeholders coming from the main sectors of the industry. The thought process behind building a semi-private entity was that it would be less bureaucratic and so better able to respond quickly to marketing opportunities, generate its own funding and take the lead in negotiating for more air and sealift to the
    islands.

    We wanted to be as nimble and as efficient as possible while marketing and promoting the destination. one of our key mandates is increase the airlift and this is an area in which we have been successful in attracting new carriers and additional flights from existing ones into the destination. The growth in additional cruise ship calls and yachting arrivals is also proof of the success in setting up the Authority. In addition to our office in Antigua, we currently have offices in London, Toronto, New York and Miami where there are teams of marketing, sales and PR professionals who are on the ground daily working with tour operators, travel agents and airline partners. Our responsibility is to ensure that we effectively market, promote and sell the destination so that we can have the desired increase in visitor arrivals from our vital overseas source markets.

     

    2. 2018 was a record-setting year for Antigua and Barbuda as you welcomed over one million visitors. Moreover Antigua and Barbuda tourism has seen a 12% increase in stay over visitor arrivals so far this year. What are your objectives to keep increasing those numbers for the coming years? What makes Antigua and Barbuda more appealing than its neighboring countries? You have been at the head of the ABTA since its establishment in February 2009. Could you please tell us about the history and background of ABTA?

    One aspect that is very important for us is that Antigua and Barbuda is an easy destination to get to. We have excellent international air connectivity. There are daily flights via British Airways from London and 4 times a week from Virgin Atlantic. Condor and Blue Panorama currently service our destination from both Frankfurt and Milan. In the North American market the airlift is even better with direct flights from New York, Charlotte, Miami, Newark and Atlanta with Jet Blue, American Airlines, United, and Delta. So visitors can get here on the same day from most parts of our major source markets. We are the country with 365 of the most beautiful pink and white sandy beaches, one for every day of the year. We pride ourselves on the beauty of our country, the natural harbors, our beaches and most importantly the warm hospitality of the Antiguan and Barbudan people.

    Antigua and Barbuda is also a major yachting destination known for its Sailing, fishing and water- sports. In fact we’re considered as the mecca of Caribbean Yachting where the region’s largest regatta our Annual Antigua Sailing Week is held on the last week of April. This event attracts thousands of sailors from around the world for a week of sailing and spectacular parties. From December to the end of April, the whole country really comes to life as we cater for the yachting enthusiasts and sailors who come to the Caribbean at this time of the year to sail, to provision and refit their yachts while enjoying the beauty of our country. This is all held against the backdrop of
    Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour home of the world’s newest UNESCO World Heritage site. These are some of the attributes that make Antigua and Barbuda different and special.

    Our wide array of first class accommodations are another factor that makes Antigua and Barbuda so appealing. We have products for every budget, ranging from the very high end and exclusive properties to those properties who cater to the families market and those on a budget vacation.

    Antigua and Barbuda is also a very safe destination. Our emphasis on safety and security has resulted in one of the lowest crime rates in the region. All these attributes have significantly contributed to the remarkable growth that we are experiencing in visitor arrivals. In order to boost our tourism marketing efforts, The Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP) which incidentally is one of the strongest in the region has provided the Authority with additional funds to help the marketing efforts.

     

    3. As agreed with Hon. Charles Fernandez, Minister of Tourism and Investment, we will be publishing our report about Antigua & Barbuda in Miami Herald on February 14th 2020, Valentines Day. Please tell us what makes Antigua the perfect honeymoon destination? And what is your marketing strategy for next year’s honeymoon season?

    Antigua and Barbuda has been voted the Caribbean’s most romantic honeymoon and wedding destination by our industry partners for 4 years in a row and there are several reasons for that. First, we are one of the very few countries in the world that does not have a residency requirement, meaning you do not have to be here overnight in order to get married. You can walk off a cruise ship and get married before you leave the same day. Also, most of our properties on island have teams that cater specifically to the wedding and honeymoon market, and so everything can be pre-arranged for our visitors. They will work with couples to arrange all aspects from the flowers to the limousine to the marriage officer in order to make that wedding event extra special.

    We make it as easy and as convenient as possible for couples to tie the knot in Antigua and Barbuda and to keep abreast of the latest developments in the industry. We also make sure that we attend the major wedding trade shows, advertise in top bride publications and online, and promote the destination on major wedding TV shows. Additionally a lot of our hotels also give away vacation honeymoon prizes on various TV game shows.

    Our destination over the years has made a concerted effort to ensure that the product and service we offer in the market provides an exceptional wedding and honeymoon experience to that niche. That is why year after year the travel agencies who specialize in weddings and honeymoons have been consistently voting for Antigua and Barbuda as the region’s premier Weddings and honeymoon destination. To top it off each year one lucky couple from one of our source markets is hosted for a free destination wedding in June the month where we celebrate romance courtesy of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority.

    A couple of years ago the Guinness Book of World Records actually reported that based on our population we have the highest per capita wedding rate in the world. We pride ourselves on that accolade, as we continue to make Romance a key component of our tourism marketing strategy. There are many little things that we do to make couples arriving here for a destination wedding feel extra special. For example at the airport whenever we recognize an arriving bride to be, who can easily be spotted with that very large wedding dress bag we immediately welcome them, take them out of the regular immigration line, and prioritize them in a fast track welcome. This makes them feel so special and is our way of thanking them for selecting Antigua and Barbuda for their destination wedding.

     

    4. You launched the #WhatCoolLooksLike summer marketing campaign and were awarded the Silver Winner, in the 2019 Travel Weekly Magellan Awards. How successful was this campaign in order to increase arrivals as well as revenues coming into the country during the summer period?

    It was extremely successful! Summer is traditionally a slow season in the Caribbean, when most of the hotels are closed for maintenance and give their staff vacations. A lot of times people are reluctant to travel to the region because it’s the heart of the hurricane season. We do very well in the winter and we wanted to change that narrative and ensure that we increase our tourism business to the island during summer as much as possible. We launched the campaign of #whatcoollooklike to raise awareness about Antigua and Barbuda and also portray it as a “cool” place to go for summer vacation with “cool” things to do.

    Temperature wise It’s actually cooler here in the Caribbean due to the refreshing trade winds than it is in Europe and North America during the summer months. We set ourselves a target to increase our arrivals by an additional 5,000 people during the period, but by the end of September we had already seen an additional 25,000 arrivals in 2019 compared to the same period last year. This successful campaign has really helped to stimulate business during the slower off-period. It has been very rewarding to see the results which has not only lead to increased visitor arrivals but also to an increase in the Government’s revenue. Every hotel stay generates a room tax, a percentage of which is used for a special tourism marketing. Fund. So more arrivals, this year means more taxes and more resources available for the Tourism Authority to perform its mandate.

     

    5. Antigua welcomed 792,873 cruise visitors last year. Many developments are happening in the cruise ship industry and notably a partnership between the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Global Ports Holding. What opportunities are you seeing in the cruise ship industry and how would you like to develop them?

    Once we have our cruise ship facilities improved and the additional berth built, Antigua and Barbuda will have the opportunity to now accommodate the largest ship in the world, the Oasis-class ships which will bring in excess of 6,000 passengers. This will make a tremendous difference in our cruise arrivals. The Oasis-class ships can only go to very few ports in the Caribbean, so once we’re able to accommodate this size of ship, it will automatically lead to an exponential increase in cruise passenger arrivals. The strategy where Global Ports Holding the world’s largest cruise port management company has been selected to manage our cruise facility will also see significant improvements to the land-side port development. This will also result in an overall enhancement of the facilities around it and subsequently an improvement in the visitor experience.

    The multimillion dollar Royal Caribbean Beach Day facility will also ensure that there are a lot more activities for the cruise guests to do, which will increase the on-island spend while significantly improving the customer satisfaction of our guests while here. One of the unique aspects about cruise tourism is that if the passengers have a great time at a destination, there is a high possibility of them coming back for a stay over vacation. The impact of cruise passenger on the overall economy is also instant, with shops, vendors, taxi drivers, and restaurants seeing the impact once a ship is in port. The cruise infrastructural developments being made are good for our country which means that the future of the cruise tourism industry has never been brighter!

     

    6. Antigua and Barbuda has strong bilateral links with the United States and especially Florida. The U.S market saw an 8% increase in arrivals last year. You welcomed almost 100,000 overnight U.S visitors per year, it represents more than 1/3 of total overnight visitors. What is the role that the U.S and Florida could play to further their tourism relations with Antigua & Barbuda?

    The U.S market is our largest source market and it represents close to 40% of total overnight visitors. Our main source of visitors is from the North East of the U.S with increase visitor numbers now coming from the South East as well as the West coast. The ability to have flight connections from most major cities every day of the week is key as it means travelers can reach the island on any given day. So we are easy and quick to get too and our flight schedules are conducive to that. Most of the flights leave early in the morning and get here between 12:30 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. The demand for Antigua has been so significant that AA is adding a second daily flight this winter season from Miami. Similar increase in airlift will also be seen from Jet Blue out of JFK New York with two additional flights. This would not have been possible if these carriers did not see the strong demand for our product. Our airline partners have all reported significant returns on their investment in increasing the air routes to the destination in recent times. All indicators are pointing to a remarkable year which will be a record year for air visitor arrivals in 2019.

     

    7. Some hospitality giants like; the Rosewood, the Waldorf Astoria, the Love and Happiness Resort, Paradise Found will soon opened resorts in Antigua as well as in Barbuda. Why is Antigua and Barbuda so attractive for such big international brands, from the U.S in particular? How vital are those investments for the country and for other big names wanting to come in? Any other developments you would like to mention?

    The fact that these brands want to come here is a vote of confidence. There is actually no shortage of places to build hotels in the Caribbean as every island competes for the investment of new properties with renowned brands with a strong reputation. For us it’s an honor for them to select us after doing all their due diligence as to where in the region they should invest. All our economic indicators of growth are showing that Antigua and Barbuda is a stable, and safe place to do business and make investments.

    We also have a sister agency which is under the umbrella of the Ministry of Tourism and Investment called the Antigua and Barbuda Investment Authority (ABIA). This is a one stop shop Investment agency which has been set up to make it easy for foreign direct investment to come into Antigua and Barbuda. Whether it’s navigating the process to get approvals, permits, or concessions it is all handled through one agency to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy which makes doing business here that much easier. This has resulted in increased investor confidence and enhanced our ability to attract leading hotel brands to the country.

    This year the Royalton Resort opened up with 300 rooms on May 1 st and they are doing remarkably well. The Hammock Cove, which is part of the Elite Island Resorts, will open up on the 1 st of December with 40 suites. The Hodges Bay Resort and Spa opened last December, while “The Escape” commenced operations at Nonsuch Bay in February. Within the space of a year we have added about 500 top end hotel rooms on the island which has helped to fuel the demand for the destination.

     

    8. Antigua and Barbuda is also looking to get into sports, as well as, wellness and medicine tourism according to Hon. Charles Fernandez, Minister of Tourism and Investment. What is being done to develop these “new” types of tourism?

    Wellness tourism is a key niche that is growing among the modern traveler. There are certain protocols that need to be followed for any destination to truly brand itself as a wellness destination. For instance, our efforts to ensure Sustainable Development, and the implementation of environmentally friendly policies are critical to this effort. For us this can range from how hotels reuse and recycle grey water on property, to how the destination reduces plastic pollution and how we harness green energy. So reducing our carbon footprint is very important as we progress along the road to being known as an official wellness destination.

    Following a wellness audit last year we have since identified the gaps and then developed an action plan to close those gaps in working towards achieving positive results in attracting wellness tourism. In the tourism sector, you have to be ahead of the curve to be able to fulfill the needs and demands of the modern millennial traveler. Visitors are not just traveling to sit on the beach and enjoy the sun anymore, they now want to have an experience that is unique whether it is going swimming with the sting rays, zip lining through the rain forest or just going to a wellness spa for mind and body rejuvenation. Any countries that has a sustainable tourism strategy is often very attractive to this type
    of visitor when selecting a vacation destination. So the fact that Antigua and Barbuda was the first country in the western hemisphere to ban single use plastic bags in 2016 and later implemented a ban on Styrofoam products has attracted this “new” type of discerning visitor. As a country are making changes that are making a significant difference to the environment and positively impacting our visitor arrivals. On the medical tourism side Antigua and Barbuda is home to one of the largest off-shore medical schools in the region. The American University of Antigua (AUA) with over 1,200 students has positively impacted the long term rentals market for accommodation and vehicles. We are also the home of the region’s newest Stem Cell Medical facility, along with the Regional Cancer Center.

     

    9. You started your career as a Customer Services manager for Cable and Wireless in the Leeward Islands, then you moved on as CEO of Cable & Wireless in St. Kitts, St. Lucia and Dominica, you went on to head PDV Caribe Antigua & Barbuda. You have now been CEO of the ABTA since its launch in February 2009. What do you feel most proud of in your personal life?

    I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to make an impact on the lives of the average citizen. In my opinion, this is not just another job, it’s really a vocation where what we do at the Tourism Authority is directly contributing towards national development and the improvement in the economic well-being of our people. When I came into tourism 10 years ago it was at the height of the economic crisis and we were really struggling in the industry. Consumer confidence in all our source markets was at an all-time low and people were just not traveling. We have been able to hold it together during those lean years and slowly but surely, see things turn around in recent year and
    begin to significantly improve. This has been as a result of the hard work of my team as well as the increased resources to market and promote the destination. We are very proud that through our efforts, tourism is seeing its best years ever and making a significant impact on the lives of our people.

     

    10. What is your final message for Miami Herald readers who consider Antigua & Barbuda as a potential tourism destination?

    You could not pick two more beautiful islands in the world to spend your vacation than Antigua and Barbuda. It is easy to get to, we have a wide range of accommodations for every taste and budget. We have 365 of the most beautiful beaches in the world with an endless list of things to do while here. So If you are looking for a vacation where you can unwind and relax in a safe environment, in unsurpassed luxury Antigua and Barbuda is the place. We have some of the warmest and friendliest people in the world who will give you a vacation experience with memories that will last you a lifetime.

     

    Interview for Miami Herald