We in Barbados have long known the importance of tourism to the island’s economic growth and prosperity. As we reach our 50th year as an independent nation, we as tourism practitioners must face up to the critical role that we play. A look at this chart prepared by the World Travel and Tourism council tells the story as it relates to contribution to GDP and employment particularly. Until other productive sectors equal tourism’s contribution in supporting continued growth and stability, the pressure will remain on the sector to be globally competitive and locally responsible in our approach to sustainability.
When the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) presented Barbados with the “Open letter” it was symbolic of the government of Barbados’ “enduring commitment to the travel and tourism industry and the promotion of the country around the world“. In his speech to mark the occasion President and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism council David Scowsill thanked the Government of Barbados and brought attention to the fact that almost 40 per cent of the Barbadian economy and two in five of the island’s jobs are somehow attributed to travel and tourism. He added “If anyone wants to understand how our sector can be a force for economic growth, job creation, self-respect and to act as a force for good in this world, it is here in Barbados.”
More pressure — that is what this added accolade brings to those of us working in the sector. We must continually evaluate our approach to tourism especially as we celebrate independence and self-determination with the goal to bring about positive change. That is the commitment of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association.
So what is tourism anyway?
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines tourism more generally, in terms which go “beyond the common perception of tourism as being limited to holiday activity only”, as people “traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes”.
I like to think of tourism in its purest sense as an exchange of cultures. We visit foreign places and discover new foods, music, lifestyles, people etc. Could this be why the sharing economy and booking platforms like Air BNB, Flipkey, Homeaway etc. have become so popular? Great prices, yes, but also a unique opportunity to experience the culture of the host country. Have we now returned to why people became tourists in the first place?
Tourism is very complex when we look behind the smile, warmth and human interaction. How do we earn revenue from pleasing our guests, distributive channel, our shareholders and staff? How do we earn revenue when all the customers and stakeholders want more for less and our shareholders and employers also want more from us.
High expectations for tourism practitioners
The online tour operators (OTA’s) want 30% of our rates and want to cut us off their lists if we advertise rates lower than theirs on our own websites.
Our customers want lowest price guarantees and will chew you up on TripAdvisor if you promised sunshine and then delivered only rain. As though Mother Nature is on your payroll.
Our shareholders want at least a 15% return though costs are rising and revenue challenged by a future with uncertainty in the value of the pound caused by the threat of BREXIT, the reopening of Cuba, and several warm weather destinations with spanking new product and five-star service on the other side of the globe.
Our employees expect all the benefits agreed whether the business is profitable or not. Our collective interactions determine how well we can accomplish the tasks at each step of the value chain. After more than 50 years in the tourism game it seems the tasks are getting more and more difficult.
We must take fresh guard and evaluate where we were, where we are and where we are headed.
Evaluating the way forward
So let us ask three simple questions, which the BHTA has charged its membership to do individually and collectively.
What we should stop, start and continue doing in the tourism sector in-order to write a road map for the next 50 years of our existence?
What we should stop doing?
Recently at a quarterly members forum some of the industry’s emerging tourism leaders discussed their perspective on what Barbados should stop doing. They opined:
- Stop treating the foreign tourism investor more advantageously than the independent, indigenous business owner. Treat us all equally.
- Stop the fragmented approach to service excellence. Let one agency be responsible for measuring and monitoring, and focus on getting the level of service beyond where we are today.
- Stop polluting the marine environment, which is responsible for the sea and sand we so dearly treasure.
- Stop twiddling our thumbs and moaning about legislation that has been in the draft stage for twenty years and enact it.
- Stop depending on your gut to make decisions. We collect data but how much time do we spend using it to determine next steps?
- Stop the use of your social media as a notice board. Some of the more enlightened are using Facebook, twitter and Instagram, but we are posting, tweeting and Instagramming the same lame stuff we have posted for eons?
Some of us sat there guilty as charged. No arguments with any of this really. We know what we are doing wrong, but what is it that we need to do right and now? Bottom line is we need to stop talking and do something about these issues.
What we should start doing?
A level playing field for all investors
We must provide a level playing field for all investors, local and otherwise, to build and refurbish their products to world-class standards. It started with the agreement of duty-free importation for all capital inputs and food and beverage items by the accommodation sector. The lobby continues for the addition of direct tourism services.
We need to start valuing the contribution made by our indigenous brands whether they be hotel, restaurant, attraction or supplier. The benefit in terms of jobs and investment in local manpower is proven. Two of the largest home-grown groups of hotels have only five work permits between them, versus the myriad offered to new entrants. Is the latter necessary? Let us embrace the international brands for the marketing clout that they bring and encourage them to integrate into the local mix. These brands can add value to the industry and by developing unique brand experiences in the context of the destination. Hilton Resort has done this successfully.
Invest in our human capital
Start or restart the emphasis on on-the-job training and return to traditional values using service concepts from primary and pre-primary school – Treat others as you want to be treated whether your sibling, neighbor or visitor.
Reduce our carbon footprint
Start a serious effort to reduce our negative impact in the tourism sector with plastics reduction. Do you really need a straw to drink from a recently sanitized glass? Would we really as an industry cease to exist if we stopped using styrofoam?
Embrace technology solutions
We must recognise that the world has changed, embrace technology and look for solutions there. Our potential guests whether millennial or baby boomer have figured out how to use the technology to book in advance and search for deals. Tourism practitioners should use social media platforms to promote their businesses. Stop thinking that you have no money for marketing. Be honest, You probably have more money than you have creativity, so start looking for the skills you need. You may find you need youth as much as we have traditionally felt that you need experience.
What we should continue doing?
Much as we fuss we have traditionally worked well together as private and public sector partners and must continue. We have generally not sat on our laurels and have traditionally studied and researched most issues and should continue. We have traditionally invested resources in our human capital at one level and we have traditionally prioritized tourism as a nation to the point that the WTTC and the UNWTO have granted us the “Open letter“.
The key to efficient and competitive tourism
This is my take as a not so young and not so emerging a leader – We need to stop talking and postulating about all we need to do. We need to stop researching the topics as a means to procrastinate further.
Let us resolve to…
Write down recommendations, establish priority, allocate resources, assign a champion and tackle solutions one by one. We need to continue to focus on our lack of implementation skills until we wake up to realise it is the key to becoming one of the top 5% most efficient and competitive tourism dependent nations in the world.