At a time when so many in our society are debating the pros and cons of the future of the Barbadian economy, one constant that we can have some confidence in, is the fact that the tourism and hospitality industry will continue in the short to medium term, to be the mainstay of our economic existence. Given this powerful reality, it behooves all of us to get the “workings” of the industry right. Our very survival may just depend on it.
From all academic analysis and indications, it has been proven that we have indeed done some things in the industry relatively well. This has been demonstrated over the years by the level of our tourist arrivals, our earnings from the sector and the nature and quality of the product mix that has emerged in the industry. However, it is now becoming increasingly clear that if our tourism and hospitality industry is to take us into the next two decades as our main economic earning source, then we must prepare for the future in a significantly different manner than we have in the past.
Our tourism and hospitality industry literally needs a new identity. We simply can’t do things as usual. “Things unusual” must be the buzz phrase for an industry that not only needs a new direction, but that demands the same if it is to achieve its true potential, provide continued prosperity for our people and even more so at a time when we are faced with probably the most challenging economic times that we have experienced as a nation state.
2012, on the surface, is expected to be a very difficult earning period for the sector and by extension for the entire country. Long stay arrivals are expected to remain at near 2011 levels (approximately 6% over 2010) which is still some eight percent below what was recorded in 2007. On the other hand earnings, in a pattern of decline that has now existed for the past three years and is now unfortunately becoming the new normal, are projected to remain stagnant. According to the Central Bank of Barbados tourism receipts fell by approximately 13% for January to March 2011 compared to the same period for 2010 while arrivals grew by approximately 5.8%.
Cruise tourism may be hardest hit in the arrival mix. Arrivals are expected to fall from approximately 650,000 plus on average for the past two years to some 450,000 in 2012. Ship calls and berths will fall by as much as 30% as most of our traditional cruise partners are repositioning vessels to Asia and Australasia.
Barbados’ home-porting business, which has become an essential and major feature of this key component of our cruise tourism business, will face severe challenges as those partners who have worked with us to build up this segment, are now also moving to the east of the globe, preferably for more affordable inputs to their operations. Moreover, their customers have signaled that they are seeking new experiences, new destinations and commercial bargains that are not readily available in Caribbean destinations, given our economic make up.
Unfortunately, many of the product development projects that were so often spoken about in the past three to four years by both government and potential developers, have largely not materialized and therefore that much needed impetus that comes from such developments has not occurred. The much-touted “Four Seasons” project, “Beachlands”, accommodation expansion at “Apes Hill”, “Sugar Hill” and “Sandy Lane”, have all been stalled while new developments at sites like “Merricks” and “North Point” have not commenced. What is even more striking in this regard is that Barbados has not developed a new visitor attraction in about five years.
These realities simply demonstrate the crucial difficulties that we will face as we seek to expand and to grow this vital sector in 2012 and beyond. That critical product mass that is necessary for the industry’s growth is simply not there.
The stark reality is that the actions and value propositions that constitute the Barbados brand have obviously lost much of their strength and worth. Barbados as a tourism and hospitality destination leader in the region has ostensibly lost its competitive edge. We no longer “wow” our visitors, we don’t offer true value for money and our physical products and support structures are mostly rundown and becoming unsightly. This is a state that is not appealing to either locals or visitors.
In its’ present form, the ability of tourism to pull the country out of recession within the short or medium term will be difficult. The fact is that if Barbados’ tourism and hospitality industry is to regain its past glory, lead us out of the economic recession and establish a platform for future increased earnings, the industry must go through a series of changes that must occur right now. Our tourism needs an enlightened, strategic, systematic, approach to its development. Additionally, the sector needs a more focused, truly participatory transformation to its existence. The likes of which has not been experienced since the tourism industry’s early beginnings in the 1960’s.
This proposed transformation, must in our estimation be private sector lead, with Government being more of a “facilitator” and not so much a “manager” as has been the case in the past. Our marketing and commercial strategies and activities must utilize those tried and tested techniques, that continue to produce such great results for many of key industry’s players, even in these recessionary times.
It must start with a true “shake up” of our principal marketing agency the “Barbados Tourism Authority”. The “BTA” needs a new template to drive its existence, a commercial model that makes the agency leaner and meaner, more quickly responsive to partners enquiries and request, less political and more commercially driven in decision making and being given an opportunity to earn some part of its way its in the world and not be so dependent on the public purse for its funding.
Barbados must be considered by its citizenry and potential visitors and investors more as a “nation of worth”, exhibiting qualities and characteristics that encourage the world’s leading brands to beat a path to our door. We simply must become more world class in our very being, not just in limited pockets of our day-to-day existence.
We laud the recently opened commercial shopping and entertainment centre at Limegrove is one such facility, world-class retail brands, bringing their business models in all of their facets to our society. The potential for knowledge transfer, marketing opportunities and employment generation are thus substantially enhanced. We therefore need to encourage more projects of this kind and to duplicate the model all across the country.
The most critical variable in this entire endeavor in 2012 and beyond, however, will be our ability to alter many of the public service systems that in our opinion are stifling our development. We have talked around this issue for years but the time for action is now. Government needs a private sector styled investment-seeking agency that truly encourages investment. The business entity must also utilize those tried and tested marketing techniques that continue to work so well for so many of our successful players in the sector. Once investors are sourced we need to facilitate and accelerate their applications through the system. Set specific time frames for assessments, approvals and reviews and stick to them. This ideal in no way means that we should compromise our standards or risk our future development. The investor world is demanding the same and our competition is obliging.
Any opportunity for future development lead by the tourism and hospitality sector must be driven by these principles. Furthermore, a truly cleaned up physical environment and a revamped and ongoing educational and public relations plan aimed at enlightening the local population on the true worth of the industry to their progress, is another key component of our development fortunes.
We will never achieve our true potential unless we make these things happen. Simple actions, but actions in themselves, that maybe critical keys to our future positive development.
Let’s hope that 2012 starts the ball rolling in this direction and that it never stops.