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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Does Anyone Have A Clue Where Barbados' Tourism Is Heading?

You cannot solve problems correctly if you do not ask the right questions, and also along the way check that the answers are making sense.

I have lived in Barbados for two years now. I knew before my arrival that tourism is supposed to be its life blood. But, I have been and remain at a real loss to figure out where tourism is headed in this country. My main concern is that I have no idea what 'product' is on offer.

Much of the year Barbados comes alive with tourists from the UK mainly, and from Canada and the US in lesser numbers. Caribbean countries also provide important numbers of visitors. The tourists from outside the region are coming mainly for the things they lack at home, especially sun and sea. The regional visitors are often here to enjoy 'cultural' events such as Crop Over and the jazz festival. Returning to visit families and friends is also an important element. Both the UK and regional neighbours can provide important numbers when Test cricket is played in the island. Horse racing events can also be a similar attraction.

When Test cricket is on, Barbados becomes an international cricket venue. What is odd is that people react as if the wave of visitors is a real surprise and that somehow their arrival is a boon for tourism. But, they are sports fans and they follow their sport; it would be a real coup if they came to visit when there is no cricket. It's not really Barbados that attracts them. Given the dinosaur-like performance during the last Test match between West Indies and England and the fiasco over the ticket sales, it would be good to look at money spent on attracting tourists and ask if that may not be better spent reorganizing ticket sales for all major events so that it is a modern and well-distributed arrangement that uses available technology and does not presume that everyone has time and inclination to spend hours lolly gagging in the sun. The same general scheme can cover many events, much like 'Ticketmaster' outlets do, and one just shows up, specifies the event and gets on with buying tickets.

Cruise ships come to the island, but there is really very little that one can honestly point to that would warrant the cruise passenger staying on land for any length of time. The shopping area offers some paltry choices, compared with other destinations that can attract cruises: I am personally familiar with Nassau, where the array of duty free goods is excellent and tourists flood the stores and part with lots of foreign exchange. Broad Street is hardly attractive in a general sense and the curious tourist may remain curious wondering why he/she has been abandoned in a kind of wilderness. There are few good and attractive places to eat near the cruise port, and the bus station and fish market are not tourist attractions. Taxi drivers and some bus operations may manage to eke out some business by ferrying a few passengers around to sights such as St. John's Church, but there is a sort of haphazardness that means that maybe visitors see sights and spend money, but maybe not.

Yesterday, the Minister of Tourism publicized what may be a major change for the sector. He disbanded the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA). Its Board was reduced by seven persons (to 11 members), and he created separate 'tourism marketing' and 'product development' companies. The former directors were offered new roles; first indications are that some declined the offers. The former BTA is to be amalgamated into the marketing company. Policy remains to be made by the Ministry.

Honestly, I hear a lot of froth about 'taking tourism to the next level', without saying what tourism will look like when it reaches that level.
  • Is that a level determined by numbers of visitors, and is the mix of long-stay and cruise visitors something that will, or need to, change?
  • Is that a level determined by an amount of revenue?
  • Is that a level determined by a range of activities and facilities offered to visitors?
  • Is that level a country ready for foreign influxes all year round, with high quality service?
  • Is the idea to build a cruise 'entrepot'?
  • Is the intention to offer a sun, sea and sex paradise?
  • Will it be a health and wellness destination?
  • Is it meant to be a second-home destination? I don't know.
It does not have to be only one or only a few of these, but the image needs to be clear. People need to understand what the country is driving for, and work. Those who are in the specific business of hospitality can then gear up to do that well. Others play supporting roles, which though indirect are very important.

If the policy on where to get visitors has been articulated, then it is not a message that has resonated near my ears.
  • Is the idea to build new sources of visitors, say China?
  • Is the idea to get more from the old sources (especially the UK, Canada and the USA)?
How is the sector supposed to move over the near-term, given that most developed countries are going to see low or negative growth and what is called 'discretionary spending' will probably decline? People will be less inclined to spend money on travel and less money on travel abroad.

What is the policy to build a sector that is sustainable for the next 25 years?

What is the policy to integrate local food production into the hospitality industry?

Is there a policy to be competitive when Cuba is back in play as a major tourism destination?

The kind of things that bother me about a vision for tourism are in the Minister's reported remarks yesterday about the Hyatt in Trinidad, when discussing a project to complete the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre. This is supposed to recapture lost conference, convention, and meeting business; plans for an auditorium have been shelved in favour of more office space. The Minister reportedly said "The truth is that we were caught sleeping on the job because there is no way that the Hyatt Trinidad should have come along and robbed our lunch like that...but these things happen." Sorry, Mr. Minister. You got it right at the beginning: "sleeping on the job". Why were people 'sleeping'? Don't they know their competition? It is not an accident. It is either indifference, a lack of focus, an unclear set of objectives, or looking at the wrong things. How could you be surprised that your major neighbour, with its swelling oil revenues pouring out of its ears, would be doing anything other than building itself into an attractive location for business visitors? Standing on the road side selling candy and hoping that people will pass by some may work, but if you are on the wrong road with the wrong sweets, you will go home with empty pockets and your lunch was not 'robbed' but 'given away'.

Apart from sugar and its by-products and financial services there is no other major foreign exchange earner than tourism. One impression that is strong is that the sector is not moving together. That may reflect the absence of a clear message about what is tourism and how it can be improved. My own take is that the whole of this economy is a part of the tourism sector. However, many people do not see that.

So, you have the recent nonsense of the cricket ticket sales, and the official reaction that does not understand the damage done for future events because of this debacle. We wont go into the still inadequate state of facilities at Kensington Oval more than a year after Cricket World Cup finished. Why do the washrooms still not have locks that work properly and necessitate doors being knocked down to release people trapped inside? I remember vividly the seats that were covered in builders' concrete dust. Usage should have cleaned them by now?

You have the nonsense of taxi drivers gouging visitors from the airport.

You have the attitude that "That's now it is" works with a foreign visitor. No. A visitor wants to be treated as special. Anyone can be treated like a dog at home for free. Imagine telling a guest at the Hilton that breakfast is closing and shooing him away, rather than seating the guest and taking the order, but explaining that the breakfast area will close soon. The first denies the customer the chance to eat, period, and says "Go away and find food elsewhere. We don't care that you are a guest. We don't want to be bothered with you." The second says, "Come in, eat at your convenience, albeit rapidly, perhaps. Your comfort and satisfaction are important for us." They give very different images of how customers are valued.

The rudeness that locals comment about on a constant basis is not lost of visitors. I read a letter in today's Nation headlined "Police must show respect to citizens" (see letter), written by someone claiming to be a Barbadian now living abroad. Key points to me were:

"... their attitude from the onset is vile"

"... no salutation offered, no badge numbers given and when they are responded to in the very manner they approach they get offended"

"... the law is put in place to protect citizens and it starts with law enforcement officers respecting the citizens of Barbados"

"... it seems that as long as you wear a police uniform you are unapproachable ... I am in authority attitude"

"... Overseas when you are stopped by a police officer you are greeted, given a name and told what the problem is and, if need be, you are also given a chance to explain. Here I have observed that from the time the officer approaches he is angry and seems, for want of a better expression, 'ready to fight'"

"... Barbadians need to be trained in basic service attitudes and only then can we demand respect from the outside world"

The letter speaks volumes. Even if it is one person's impression, it is very unflattering. But the problem is that it is a well-known and often observed set of behaviours. I have had the dubious pleasure of seeing and experiencing it often, to the extent that I was compelled to compliment a policeman at the airport for his civility and willingness to help me at the airport a few weeks ago.

Many countries give their police forces special training to deal with visitors. Here there is a need for training to deal with people. When you get this within a few minutes of arriving in country you should not have to think hard about what message is sent to the visitor. It may be one reason why many crimes against visitors go unreported.

Visitors are not really valued or understood here. Why is it not apparent that people in a hired car need more than "You can' park here"? They need to know where they can park. They don't need "Move ya car. It blockin' my grill" They too need to know what they can do to find parking? In St. Lawrence Gap, with its limited parking I have yet to see anyone guiding motorists to parking spaces and sites, whether they are paying or free. Go deal with it yourself. But come back soon and spend your money. In many places that have lots of foreign visitors 'guides' or 'mentors' of one sort or another are common place. They help foreigners and deal with local behaviour that may deter foreigners. It's sensitivity training in action.

A real need exists for tourism to have a clearer image and for it to be a beacon that pulls many parts of the economy along. Ideas for offshore islands may be good, but only if the add to an excellent experience. In The Bahamas, many visitors go to the Atlantis complex on Paradise Island and never leave because their time there is so good they do not feel the need to see the rest of Nassau. Everything is there and better than everywhere else. Tourists have to pay dearly for that, but will do so if it seems like value for money. Tourists need to be made 'hungry' to visit the country and sample all that it offers and be excited to tell their friends so that they too can get on the good feeling bus. They should not have a patchwork of poor and regrettable experiences. They should not have to do with people sleeping on the job.

Get the sector to the next level? No. Get the sector to the top of all that there is around. Then you can look down and say, "Not done a bad job at all".


2 comments:

venturemike said...

My goodness Dennis, they should make you honorary minister of tourism with your sharp perception of what's needed. Over the time I've been coming to Barbados I have noticed a distinct change in locals' attitudes to tourists. Let's hope that you don't end up with the same situation as in some other island countries, where the tourists are ferried straight from the airport to their gated compounds and never leave for fear of hostility, discourteousness and crime - but there's a strange feeling around which gets stronger each time I visit. Sad.
There is actually plenty to do in Barbados, for those of who are not content to just sit on the beach - but you're right it needs a concerted and government-backed push to get the whole visitor experience sorted. You get stuck in !
m

Christopher said...

Wow! You've done so many things and been in so many places!
I only know the Buenos Aires apartments in Argentina and my own country.