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**

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can we be proud of our tourism?

I cannot think and act like a tourist from Europe or North America. I won't even try to imagine what they think when they visit Caribbean islands and countries. Whenever there are surveys they show that the tourists love the friendliness of Caribbean people and the relatively easy-going lifestyle that is possible. But what can tourists expect and what do they often find? I am going to concentrate my remarks on what I have seen since living in Barbados and visiting neighbouring islands in the past year.

Attractions. It's easy to see the attraction of vacations in The Caribbean: sun, sea, sand; often relaxed lifestyle; often relatively safe; lively music; different foods; exotic drinks; etc., especially during those periods when you have at home snow, ice, darkness, trees without leaves. Visitors may also find some easy sexual relations here. The Caribbean offers some other interesting attractions: historical sites (not many and not often well kept, but there); wonderful nature (an attraction for some to just visit to see flowers, plants, and wildlife that they have only read about or seen on TV, for others it adds to the relaxation to be able to hike in mountains or forests that have few other visitors and can offer wonderful spectacle). The latter is being developed in some of the mountainous islands such as Dominica and St. Lucia, and in the jungles of Guyana. The historical sites--forts, plantation houses, underwater wrecks--are a mixture, but often repay a visit and can rival many similar sights anywhere, and if one thinks of places like Belize as part of The Caribbean, there are some wonderful Mayan or Amerindian sites.

Service with a smile or even service at all? Well, that is a rarity, even in the large, branded, top-of-the-line hotels. I have stayed at a Four Seasons (Exuma, Bahamas--broadly a very pleasant experience, and the mosquitoes that often plague the island had gone on vacation) and one of the Preferred Hotels (The Landings, St. Lucia--mixed; the hotel is not yet complete, but there are plenty of staff they just seem to be not always on the ball); I have visited Sandy Lane, Barbados just during the afternoon (the hotel is too expensive for me to stay there, but I was pleased with the level of service I experienced on afternoon visits. Overall, my impression is that service is at best patchy. A facade of friendliness and efficiency, but often no more than a facade. Just coming from a weekend in St. Lucia, I had to smile when the gate keeper at the hotel offered me a "guest pass" for my vehicle as I was departing for the airport to return home; the previous two days he had waved at me as I tried to enter after I had to honk the horn to get his attention to open the gate. My family and I don't need flunkies, but if you offer me flunkies then get the flunk on. On three occasions, the golf buggy transport "offered on demand" took more than 20 minutes to arrive; I gave up waiting and walked, and told the front desk that "I was not impressed".

I have to admit that I find staff in Barbados associated with tourism to be masters of the "grouchy approach"--it may be an extension of the criticism of the island as having too many BPOs (business prevention officers). It starts and ends often enough at the airport. There is a certain surliness of the staff that is bordering on disrespect. "Take out your laptop", "Gimme your passport", other orders come reeling out, without those short but very friendly additions "Please" and "Thank you", even the overworked Americanism "Have a nice day" or "Enjoy your stay in the island" would help to offset the unwelcoming approach.

I read an article in The Barbados Advocate on April 19, by Nigel Wallace, entitled "Polite as...". It noted "I did not recognise just how much manners were really missing until my wife reprimanded me for entering a room of strangers without saying 'Good morning'...You must ... imagine my shock when I recognised that Barbadians don't really want polite. They want, more than anything, to be ignored so that they don't have to fumble over the words that have been forgotten somewhere around a decade ago." Mr. Wallace hits the nail squarely on the head. He feels that it's because of distractions that the courtesies have been forgotten to explain (in his words) "when someone who is paid to serve us fails miserably at their job". He argues that "somewhere along the line we have forgotten to demand courtesy and good manners on a day to day basis". I wish I could agree with that last point because if you try to demand them you are met with an even surlier glare, as happened to me when I went to park my car and was met with a ticket thrust into my hand, and when I said "Good morning" three times and waited for a reply each time, was told "What you, expec'? You wan' me to say 'Good morning' to you? You fin' me here". On leaving the airport last Friday, the LIAT gate attendant took my tickets, processed them, thrust out his hand with them back towards me and proceeded to discuss some partying issue with a colleague. "Hello," I said, "the passenger is over here". He looked back at me surprised to be reminded that we were in the midst of a transaction. (Those of us who live in Barbados can add to this all the behaviours we find in ordinary stores.)

My wife is of the view that if the base for tourists in Barbados was Americans, as it is in The Bahamas, then the industry here would have to get its act together fast because Americans are believed to demand a higher level of service. I think it needs more than a change of visitor source. There needs to be a receptiveness to training and a willingness to want to work in serving people. Whatever training is given is not producing an industry that would tempt me to come back. But Barbados has a lot of repeat visitors, albeit mainly from the UK. My wife feels that British tourists are not very discerning. I disagree to the extent that The Brits can go to Spain and have a great holiday, with less travel, and as much sand, sea, sex and alcohol as anywhere, and it's a cheap deal. Even so-called fine restaurants in Barbados make a hash of serving. At a recent dinner at one of Barbados' top restaurants on the south coast, the patrons at an adjacent table, who sounded American, had to raise with the manager that after an hour they had still not received their food. Why it took them an hour to complain I cannot understand--too much acceptance of island time? Within 15 minutes their meals arrived. A lot of people in that restaurant had not been doing their jobs.

Value for money? This is hard to define. When people travel on holiday they are often on a budget, but they are also ready to spend freely--it's vacation time, when you are supposed to relax and have fewer concerns. But that does not mean that you want to be gouged by every price you face, or feel that the scent of your cologne immediately starts the price rising as the cologne goes up in the air. I find it hard to understand why everything in Barbados is considerably dearer than almost anywhere else I travel. Certainly, it is a pleasant surprise to travel to a neighbouring island and find normal prices for food and drink. Perhaps many tourists are insulated from the problem in Barbados if they visit on all-inclusive packages, and can drink and eat to their hearts' content without shelling out another pound, Euro, Canadian or US dollar, unless they want to party in St. Lawrence Gap. However, enough tourists keep most of the tables filled in many of the restaurants here and the British, Canadians and Europeans perhaps have not had such sticker shock with the recent strength of the Pound, Canadian dollar and the Euro; Americans are probably shocked at how much their fixed dollar does not buy here.

Ease of travel. Poor us. We have to rely mainly on LIAT (about which I have written before and the plight of which many have expressed their hostile opinions--though for once, I can report a good experience with LIAT to and from St. Lucia, with on time service (even early take off and arrival) and our bags arriving within 10 minutes. So, on occasion their service can be alright. But apart from that, we are hampered in the islands because we cannot travel between places with ease and certainty, and the fares are not cheap. Although the fares costs differ the problems of interconnection are many whether travelling with LIAT, American Eagle and Air Jamaica. So, we have to endure long waiting times at airports in order to travel relatively short distances; can find ourselves spending an unscheduled night and day somewhere because of mechanical problems; or/and endure complications due to regulations about crew flying times. The inter-country services in The Caribbean are at best erratic, and at worst totally unreliable (even including the unannounced rerouting or cancellation of flights and the consequent dislocations that can cause for individual travellers). I cannot fix LIAT's problems; perhaps competition could, but it's a hard set of routes to work well and at a profit. The other problems we have to endure are a price for living in "paradise" with its relative isolation and many islands that want to act as separate countries.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), founded in 1989, with the merger of the Caribbean Tourism Association (founded in 1951) and the Caribbean Tourism Research and Development Center (founded in 1974). It is headquartered in Barbados, and has a mission objective to"create and manage the partnerships necessary to increase the purchase of travel to and within the Caribbean that results in sustainable economic and social benefits for our people". Their latest report (for 2005) indicated that "Caribbean tourism sector was continuing to hold its own”. The latest statistics for 2007 show an incomplete picture because reporting from member countries in patchy: data released in March 2008 show full year figures for only 18 (of 29) destinations but they give an impression of important declines in stopover visitors in some major markets (e.g. The Bahamas -5%, Puerto Rico - 7%, and Cuba -3%), with much of that in the winter (January-April) season. Barbados' stopovers rose 2% but some of this may reflect the benefits of Cricket World Cup. By contrast, one major market, Cancun, Mexico, saw stopovers rise 27%.

CTO is working with other organizations to help develop new tourist products, looking at economic and environmental sustainability, and exploiting the "wellness" attributes of the Caribbean, whether for true medical services or for spa treatments. But these initiatives will still have to look for success in a framework of difficult travel possibilities and a service culture that is really lacking in many respects.

I think we should feel disappointed about what we offer tourists. There are general problems in the hospitality we offer that come from the kind of people we are producing in general, with too little regard for manners, respect, politeness, etc.. The tourism industry can try to correct certain behaviour through good training programs but it may have a hard time if these are ingrained in the societies' common education and behaviour standards. We don't seem to have excellence as a platform on which we will build tourism: that's not an easy objective, but given our size and the competition, "just so" can't do for ever. It may seem quaint and fit the foreigners' image of us being "simple people" but it's not something we can sell.

I don't know of any research that has tried to evaluate the costs of travel dislocation in the region. The average business person cannot cope well with the jumbled offerings of the airlines. No amount of local pleading seems to change the basic situation. The tourists have to tolerate it. But I think we are all hurting.

On the aspect of hospitality and an industry based around it, I think we have a long way to go. It's always a shock to think that the basic need is something that we used to have as a point of pride in the region, politeness, friendliness and a real sense of consideration. Lots of things have changed in the region and we don't put our hand out and hearts into tasks the way we used to. We often don't see that service is not servitude and our history does not help in getting over that issue. There's a lot of social baggage to carry. Changing these things takes more than platitudes and we need more constructive criticism from visitors and from ourselves; those hearing the criticism need to take heed of it. People will tend to come to the region because of our climate and lifestyle, but as money becomes scarce we have to add to those attributes in a significant way: you can get sunshine in a lot of other places, and an easy going lifestyle is also available in a lot of places. So, we need to build on the other aspects of tourism.

Tourism has become the life blood of most of the Caribbean countries and it needs to be re-energized. The solutions are easy to see but they need action to be taken and taken soon.


Admin said...

Hi, Dennis. What an excellent post (again). I do believe most Barbadians, without being tourists in their own land, will have boatloads of anecdotes concerning intra-citizen discourtesy. Once upon a time we were reputed for the opposite (and continue in many cases to delude ourselves this is still so). Your airport/Redcap experience is a rich seam of material in that regard.

Service may not be not servitude (very catchy btw) but I am not sure that is the (only) root cause(whereas, from the white metropolitan French perspective with which I am somewhat familiar, appears to be the situation when they visit Martinique or Guadeloupe).

Anonymous said...

Your blog gets top marks from me.

Anonymous said...

As someone borned in Barbados and now living in Canada the last 38 years I am appalled at the disrespect and rudness of Barbadians on the island.

I understand that having to say "thank you", "you're welcome" and "please" day after day to tourists whom you may percieve to be more affluent than you can get taxing. However that does not excuse Barbadians invalidation of others by being rude to them.

Anonymous said...

As someone that has spent almost ALL my working life (42 years) in the tourism industry, I agree with some of the points raised BUT I also believe that Management has to take some blame.

'We' often expect our service personnel to deliver a level of service that they have NOT been exposed to.

If we had more international Brand name hotels, perhaps there would be greater opportunity to ship staff off to North America and Europe during the softer summer months to show them what many of our visitors expect in service delivery.

If we cannot do this, then maybe we should use the homeporting cruise ships to achieve this.

Living in Barbados said...

Thanks for those insight, Adrian; your views are much appreciated. The power of the standards of international brands to force improvements makes more sense to me than the power of the nationality of the tourists.

Anonymous said...

I see in today's papers that the new DLP government is pushing for more brand name hotels to come to Barbados, especially to appeal to Americans, at least so MPs and the new Minister of Tourism are telling us. It is amazing that such a beacon of Caribbean tourism has only a Hilton, and of course Sandy Lane. Sure, Four Seasons is on their way (Chinese workers permitting). Why no Marriott? Why no Sandals, either, thinking of regional brands? Is this another case of "If things are so great in Barbados then why dont these people come here?"

Chicago Blackhawk said...

Thanks for those insight, Adrian; your views are much appreciated. The power of the standards of international brands to force improvements makes more sense to me than the power of the nationality of the tourists.