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, December 05, 2009

Tourism Week When Tourism's Weak

The coming week marks Tourism Week, hosted by the Ministry of Tourism (see Government Information Service). Under the theme: "Achieving Success through Service Excellence", the public are invited to participate in a range of events between December 6-12, ending with a Christmas concert in Independence Square featuring a number of local performers. Among the events that struck my eye was a public lecture on December 7 entitled "A Vision For Tourism in the Future", which will be held in Lecture Theatre 2 of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. The lecture will be delivered by Professor John Tribe from the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom.

Many people seem confused about what is happening to this sector, which is a main earner of foreign exchange and provider of jobs in the economy.

The latest and most comparable data (through November 24) are those provided by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), see http://www.onecaribbean.org/content/files/dec4Lattab09.pdf. These show a clear 10+% decline in stop over visitors during January-October (over the same period in 2008). Virtually every reporting country or destination recorded a decline, and Barbados looks to be about in the middle of the region for performance; but the data are not all for the same period, so I wont go into that more. A notable bucking of the trend was seen in increased visitor arrivals to Guyana (+6%), Cuba (+3%) [both January-September] and Jamaica (January-August), which increased by 4%, boosted by a 28% increase in visitors from Canada. This reportedly reflects 'new accommodation', increased airline seats, and 'aggressive marketing', especially to western Canadian provinces (see comments by Tourism Minister Bartlett).

For Barbados, only visitors from Canada registered an increase (+10%). Visitors from every other region (US, Europe, other [mainly Caricom]) showed substantial declines (-12/13%). The Canadian story seems to reflect a lot of hard work on the ground to boost travel, and some real knock-down fares. Similarly moves (prompted by the start up of JetBlue's service from New York on October 1) to lower fares from the US north eastern corridor were probably too new to have yet had an impact on arrivals from there. We know that North America and Europe have been mired in a deep recession since 2007, so the fall off in travel should be no surprise.

CTO's data show cruise passengers to Barbados were up 5% over the same period. Many specific conditions affect cruise travel. However, the data show some huge variations by destinations, eg Dominica + 52%, St Vincent +51%, Antigua/Barbuda +26%; with notable declines for US territories and Martinique, and Cozumel (presumably H1N1 related).

Government ministers have tried to put the most positive spin possible on the clear downward trend in tourism this year, and naturally have started to move to the prospect of a more positive outcome in 2010.

One area where the spin is positive but hard to fathom concerns what tourists spend. What I know of travel statistics makes me have little faith in any data on spending, as they are really good guesses at best. Some countries have well developed systems for data collection, for instance, Canada has a very sophisticated way of measuring such spending, in part in calculating GDP, see http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/13-009-x/2009002/meth-eng.htm. But good statistics for tourism spending has many implications, including how they would affect any re-estimated GDP.

Whatever ministers say about tourism spending showing signs of increase I would take this to be pie in the sky. One thing that has been noticeable to me when travelling to/from the US the past few months (to Miami, New York and Washington DC) is how many of the passengers from the US had Bajan accents, rather than American-accented people. In terms of spending, ‘US’ visitors who are really returning nationals usually means less spending. Indications of how tight times are in the developed countries include signs that a reverse remittances story is developing, with residents in the Caribbean sending support to their relatives in North America and elsewhere, not the usual direction of 'from foreign, back home'.

But, I sense that some people are really lost about what tourism means for the country. Tourism does not matter much to a country merely because tourists have a good time; if the good time is at national expense, then you better look out. People may not know that much of the past tourism business was based on heavy discounting by Barbados' government. That means Bajans were paying tourists to come and have a good time. That went a step further this year with refunds for bad weather. Note that we who live here do not get any financial breaks 365 days a year.

Many positive comments have come about the past weekend's 'Tennis pon de Rock' event, featuring Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki as the main attractions. Most people had a good time and the tennis stars loved being here and want to come back. As Ms. Wozniacki noted in her blog, she loved her suite at Sandy Lane. But, who would not? Some would feel that prices for tickets and the billing should have given them more than one set of tennis over 20 minutes from these super stars. Others might say that, as it was a charity event, it was a great achievement to get them to come to Barbados, which has no really high standing in world tennis.

But the benefit of events has to be demonstrated in terms of income it generates, new business it generates or may generate, and new income it may create, less all the expenses that have to be paid to help generate that income. That’s as true of your corner shop as for any major event. If you want to look at it at an extreme look at how putting on Olympic Games have cost the cities that host them. Forecasts of profits turn out to be losses. Look at Cricket World Cup as a regional example. Everyone loved the events, but now the citizens have debt round their necks and some white elephant structures on the landscape.

Some people seem reluctant to want to do the accounting for what took place. Yet, if you don't do that then you should not be surprised with the burden that you may be carrying in the future.

What is interesting is that rather than know any answers people seem ready to enjoy the party and not worry about who may have to pay the bills. I guess where ignorance is bliss, who wants to be wise?

Some see posing questions as 'beating the drum of gloom and doom'. Yet the doom and gloom, if any, only comes if the answers are not favourable. The questions themselves show that you have an interest in going beyond what you see on the surface. They seek to go in the direction of investigation–asking for information–rather than assuming anything (good or bad). Maybe this is uncomfortable to do. Like not visiting the doctor because one fears what he or she may say?

People seem afraid to ask what tourism is really doing for the economy or what any event has really done to boost tourism (sport or otherwise) this year or in the future. How is it supposed to help? If the product is so good, why does it need to be subsidised? How does positive comments go to offset the critical views recently aired of those who come from overseas to try to arrange sporting events in Barbados? Is the event a one-off or is it sustainable? And so on.

The question has been asked many times, "What is the net benefit of tourism for Barbados?" The answer remains elusive.


acox said...

Since you seem to have more questions than anwswers. My question to you what doyou suggest the barbados goverment do to stop the decline in tourisim?
It would be interesting if you have one suggesting.However I wouldn't be surprised if you avoid giving any .
Media via the internet is avery important tool especially by radio promotion and television very little is done in that area.
Please don'f dodge my question
Waiting for an answer

Dennis Jones said...

@acox, When I first started working at a central bank, my supervisor told me "We do not expect you to have all the answers, but we do expect you to be able to ask the right questions."

Let's try to do a Q&A. First, the problem to solve is not "How do you stop the decline in tourism?". You need to understand why it is declining--which may be out of your control--and then see if you can deal with its effects.

Why is tourism to Barbados declining? The world has been in recession for two years and countries from which Barbados draws its visitors have suffered very badly (US, UK, rest of Europe, Canada, Caribbean). So people in those areas are spending less, and tourism is suffering along with other forms of spending. Barbados may be getting hit harder because of its heavy reliance on the UK, where the recession began earlier and has gone deeper than in most countries. However, Barbados may also be suffering because of issues about the nature and quality of what is on offer. Sun, sand and sea are plentiful in many destinations so other attractions are needed. Some of Barbados' key attractions are not functioning, eg Harrison's Cave, Ocean Park. Other things, are not as good as elsewhere. Shopping options are very limited and for some types of tourists this is very important, but it is also important in getting tourists to part with their money: compare duty free offerings here with other Caribbean destinations. See recent comments critical of how organizations looking to mount sports tourism in Barbados are treated and how the institutional support here is lacking. Service is acknowledged to be severely wanting: this is acknowledged within the local tourism industry.

What can we do about the decline in tourism? Marketing has been shown to be important, both in amount and type: the surge in Canadian visitors in both Barbados and Jamaica has been based on much increased marketing efforts, including to new source areas like western Canada. Increase the availability of flights and lower their costs: JetBlue (from NY) and the addition of scheduled (not charter) flights by SunWing and WestJet to Barbados from Canada has been important.

But note what the Minister of Tourism said about the decline in visitors from Canada: "In 1979, (some) 99,000 Canadians came to Barbados," Sealy said in a report in Totally Barbados. "Last year, only 55,000 came. So, we have a lot of room there that we can grow." Note also that Canadian federal government also reports that an average of 50,000 to 60,000 Canucks visit Barbados each year, despite the fact that the relationship between the two countries dates back more than a century. The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service established an office in Barbados in 1907 and Canadian banks soon followed. The Royal Bank, for example, opened a Barbados branch in 1911 (see http://www.canada.com/travel/Barbados+Take+authentic+Caribbean+experience/920479/story.html). So both sides see a hugely underdeveloped market.

Trying to target new markets is important, and Barbados is turning its attention to China (which has not been in recession and whose citizens are just warming to mass tourism) and South America (very close but culturally and lingusitically very differnt, with many tourist attractions of their own already). We will have to see what results that brings.

Promoting the island in other ways help. The highly regarded Zagat Survey released a Best of Barbados guide in 2007 -- the first Zagat guide to a Caribbean island. That 'standard setting' is very important. What will be interesting will be to see what happens this year with so many high quality restaurants closing on the island.

Remember also, that tourism also includes business visitors, for conferences etc. Minister Sealy went on record months ago lamenting how Barbados had lost out in that area to Trinidad, who was "eating Barbados' lunch" (or words to that effect).

Dennis Jones said...


There's more that can be done to get public 'buy in' to tourism. Bermuda is known to have a 'policy' of getting tourists to spend from arrival to departure, meaning that taxis are part of the effort to get tourists to spend, and make sure they leave with empty pockets. Every one has to see that they are part of the 'image' of tourism on the island: bad experiences stick and reports of them get spread fast by word of mouth: Minister Sealy and his staff monitor closely tourists' attitudes as reported on TripAdvisor.

That's a lot of information. So, I will understand if it is hard to digest.

Anonymous said...

Dennis I am ver pleased with your response to my "Question" .However i would suggest that you send acopy to the Tourisim ministry maybe in it they can find some answers. You might not have realised it but indirectly you have given some good ways in which to solve some of the tourisim problems . I am really pleased in the way in which you would point out the ways specifically other couties are getting better results ther in lie some of the answer needed.
I am very pleasantly surprised I thought yuor answer was very thought provoking and gave much food for thought.
Statics are very important that I do understand but without sound suggestions on how to solve a problem they are just what they are abunch of numbers.
I am very impressed to see this side of your comments and I would continue to read yourblogs looking for more of the same.
Good job this time .Keep it up

acox said...

THe anonymous comment was incorrectly tag .it was actually a response given by me (acox)to my Question about "Suggestions offered by you.

Dennis Jones said...

@acox, I figured that the anonymous comment was yours, so took it hoping you would confirm. As you may realize, blogger.com does not permit a referral back to a commentator.

I recommend you read the letter in today's Advocate, "Several benefits to Tennis pon de Rock". To me, it is a series of 'half' answers, with not a single figure to support any remark. Good that other comments provoked a reply but should it have been necessary? I know plenty in the tennis fraternity and in the general audience who would argue strongly that the event was much less than it could/should have been.

Thanks for your suggestions.