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.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Saturday, May 09, 2009

What Ill Winds Blow

As the current economic downturn tries to find a plateau, I've been trying to follow how it has been making itself felt in the region. For the most part, the immediate sources of problems have been clear, with concerns about a falling off in tourism being higher than most things. With world tourism expected to decline by nearly 4 percent in 2009, it's impossible for the region not to suffer (see Nation report). In Barbados, that fall off has not shown itself much yet in the form of hotel closures and lay offs; more obvious has been the stalling of construction projects. Also evident has been the circular ripples that come from the major foreign airlines cutting back on flights to regional destinations. This has not necessarily meant stopping all flights but also limiting the options for travel, so that morning and afternoon departures from say New York have been cut to just mornings. Tourism is highly competitive, and as the attraction of far-off destinations wanes, value-for-money will become more evident closer to home.

The high end of the tourism market has not been immune to economic hard times. When I was in Nassau, The Bahamas, over Christmas that coincided with news that 800 staff were being laid off at the Atlantis complex on Paradise Island. Barbados has seen the laying off of 700 workers--temporarily it was reported--as financing problems affected the Four Seasons Resort due to be developed by Cinnamon 88 at Paradise, on the west coast. In December 2008, Sandals Resorts International announced lay-offs of 650 Caribbean hotel workers in The Bahamas, Jamaica and St. Lucia, representing seven per cent of its workforce; lay-offs were also planned for Antigua. In the Dominican Republic, which along with Cuba has led the way in Caribbean tourism growth over the past 10 years, the financial crisis has also stalled the major Cap Cana resort, a development which includes four luxury hotels, three golf courses and a mega-yacht marina. The resort development released 500 workers in November 2008, after Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and a US$ 250M loan fell through. Talks to re-negotiate a US$ 100M short-term loan also collapsed. The job cuts bite hard and few alternative employment opportunities exist.

Yesterday, while enjoying a day's sailing in the British Virgin Islands, I saw up close again what that means. One of the exclusive hotels on a small resort island, Peter Island Resort and Spa management, just this week laid off 25 staff. The place was virtually bereft of visitors. However, a wedding had been planned for the weekend and some 100+ guests were expected; they arrived before I left and transformed the place in a few short minutes. But after the wedding, what next? When you see an empty beach at an exclusive resort it's hard to know whether that's how it always is, or that's how it is because no one is visiting.

I looked at The Moorings marina in Tortola, where some 40 plus yachts and catamarans were moored for charter. It was a tropical scene to envy, with the swish and sleek white fibre glass hulls lining the waterfront, where a US$15 million expansion had just been completed and opened in January. "This is terrible! This time last year, 20 of these boats would have been out at sea earning money," one of my Tortolan acquaintances shouted.

Visitors to the region from north America and Europe often have the notion that all is idyllic and constant paradise here. Warm weather. Blue sea. Fresh fruit and fish. Music. Dancing. Laughter. Everyone must be happy. People must have it great. Very few ever see beyond the servers at the hotels and restaurants, and the workers at spas and golf courses to imagine what the benefits of those jobs and wages mean beyond the person working. Few will see that there is an economy and social structure underpinned by their visits, and how vulnerable it is. When there is dirt and dereliction, at or near the airport or hotel, or if there are vagabonds pestering people on the beaches or near restaurants and clubs, then visitors get some sense that hardship may be present. But by that stage the hardship would have been well established. While it is creeping along it can easily go unseen. Tourism has built a cross on which many will suffer.

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