Some critical aspects of our tourism development worth mentioning are highlighted below:
At the level of national marketing, it is still our view that the present national marketing agency needs fundamental reform. Although the existing model may have served us well in the past, the reality is that the present organizational structure does not readily conform to how business is done in an electronic, more commercially independent age. A model better suited for these times, in our opinion would be a public private sector for profit company, in which both sectors have an equal say. A tourism company that has the power to trade under licenses, can bid on and produce events and activities as a means of revenue generation. A travel entity that may even act as its own wholesaler/tour operator and property developer, where and when it is called upon to do so, an agency in which those that have the product, are charged with more say and more operational control than they do now. We need such an agency. Again I repeat this thinking is not new, neither is it unique to tourism dependent economies. Time is of the essence and this fundamental reform must happen now. Reform, I remind you does not mean ridding ourselves of people, what it does mean is utilizing our best resources in a manner that promotes optimum performance. Ultimately stated, we have failed over the years to modernize the way in which we market Barbados and we must make the correction now.
Equally as important is the notion of marketing positioning as still the best means of optimizing our return on investment. We can continue to run after increased numbers, but we believe that we must position Barbados’ tourism to earn the best yield from our marketing efforts. This is best achieved by putting our product up front and center with the traveler that Barbados knows best, that knows Barbados best and are apt to patronize the island first. In our case those people are the British. We need to get more forcefully into the British market.
As a tourism dependent nation, we need a more specific, more vibrant air transport policy. The present reality is that we are left mostly to the vagaries of the international air transport industry, exhibiting very little influence over such a vital component. There was a time, you will recall when we as a country owned an airline. To my knowledge we still have a controlling interest in LIAT and although I am not advocating outright ownership of any airline, I am suggesting that we leverage that ownership to negotiate some form or level of ownership of one of the existing larger regional carriers and possibly even extra-regional carriers. LIAT’s network, particularly in the sub-region along with its more recent improved financial performance, certainly in my opinion, places it in the prime position to negotiate rights and ownership with other larger carriers that need effective and consistent access to the Eastern Caribbean basin. The effect however, may more substantially assist us, as this would most likely give us a seat and a say in the board rooms that matter. This presence might also influence in great measure our ability to have adequate airlift for the opening up of new markets, for improving access to Barbados out of existing ones and generally influencing civil aviation policy direction in the region.
Hinged on this is the critical issue of a much clearer civil aviation policy for the Caribbean. My research has shown that although there is a form of civil aviation agreement amongst regional governments, the document has not been agreed to by all potential signatories. Our desire is to see this matter resolved in a manner that creates a more “open skiesâ€ approach to the Caribbean, thus permitting us to have a better opportunity at attracting international airlines into our air space.
Another of those areas, which has been a consistent bother to us in recent time, has been the availability and access to development capital at affordable interest rates. We laud the efforts of government both past and present to provide such resources. The fact of the matter is however, that they have not done so successfully. Where such provision of capital has been made, resources have been sparse and costly. It is our contention that the single greatest hindrance to progress and development for many of our colleagues and partners is access to affordable capital. If this is the case, then why is government during the good times not setting aside some level of capital for future tourism development? We are recommending that discussions between the BHTA and government be had on the probability of establishing some form of sinking fund that is specific to the tourism sector. We believe that when business is good, a percentage of our annual national tourism earnings, over a specific time period, should be placed into such a fund.
Additionally and in this vein, annual marketing budgets to any new public/private sector marketing company should be treated in similar fashion. This pool of funds, which should be invested at attractive interest rates, can also be used for price support and for airline and other forms of industry assistance, during difficult times, not unlike the times that confronts us today.
Furthermore, the creation of an equity fund for the sector, raised through a national tourism bond issue, specifically earmarked for the development and expansion of the industry and offering attractive returns to the bondholders, should be seriously considered by government. The notion that as an industry, we must wait on the market and be left to the vagaries that we don’t and can’t control is archaic and pedestrian thinking to say the least. As such we must start deriving ways and means to influence the market and how best to push the industry’s development in our direction. This thinking you will also find is not unlike how the international financial institutions, given the most recent global financial and economic meltdown, are actually thinking and planning when assessing the future viability of small states, like our own.
The entire concept of having reserve capital set aside for emergency and contingent use comes home to us even more forcefully when we consider the most recent events that have occurred in two of our major source markets. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the impact it has had on the economic fortunes of that region, coupled with the industrial action taken by the British Airways’ cabin crew, drives home the point of the vulnerability of the sector and certainly in my opinion cements the case for this kind of resource base for our tourism.
Another area that I want to hone in on today is once again the area of our physical environment and how we continue to treat to it. Whilst it may be argued that we have moved to fix some of the more negative aspects in this area, there is so much left to be done. I refer here specifically to coastal erosion, which has seen so many of our beaches come under the threat of disappearing for good particularly after the past winter season. The fact is that we have moved way too slowly on these basic tourism bread and butter issues. The beaches are arguably the most important asset in our tourism make-up and certainly the most photographed element to the potential visitor in all of our advertising efforts, yet we have moved so slowly to correct the challenges along our coastlines. I am appealing to the authorities again today to accelerate the effort as it relates to coastal protection and repair and beach rejuvenation. Our responses to the environmental challenges that we face must simply be more nimble. Our physical environment is simply too vital to our long-term economic survival to be dealt with in the lethargic manner in which we approach it. Let us resolve today to work with and to urge the Government to step up efforts in this regard.
Finally, Ladies and Gentlemen, I wish to say a word today relative to our on going collaboration with the public sector, and the prominence that we believe tourism should be given within central government and particularly at the level of the Ministry of Finance. We believe that there simply must be more specific attention paid to our number one economic earning sector, at that level. Whilst we do not pretend to tell the government how to run its affairs, too much of what we do and submit to central government seems not to be given priority and we simply wait too long for responses and feedback. This is a matter that certainly needs more careful attention by our state officials, if we are to weather the many storms that we face in the sector and if we are to continue to grow and develop the industry.
Notwithstanding the aforesaid, this is not only about the public sector. Equally of concern to us is the lack of commitment exhibited by some of our own members. The only manner in which the association can work effectively on your behalf is if you meet your obligations to us. That obligation begins with submitting information when requested, as well as meeting deadlines on these issues. This lack of commitment to some aspects of the association’s business has been an issue of concern to successive leaders of the association for some time and certainly a source of great frustration for your secretariat. The mind boggles, that there are some members who sit idly by, pay little attention to assisting the organization in its work but still reap the benefits that are gained, in areas like collective bargaining through our industrial relations programme, or price support in the form of the “Tourism Industry Relief Fundâ€. I wish therefore once again and on behalf of all those seriously committed members on whose shoulders some of you are standing, to encourage you to step up your game and to show more commitment to your association that is doing so much every day to improve the lives of each and every Barbadian.
The time is also ripe to once again call on each and every one of you to pay more attention to environmental concerns on the island. The lack of action by so many regarding the maintenance of a pristine physical environment is a bother to many of us in the industry. Agreed, that action and rhetoric in this regard should not only come from the BHTA, but the fact of the matter is that our most potent tool in this regard is to constantly and consistently lobby government. However, at the individual level there is so much that can be done. For example, taking personal charge of a specific area that abuts and abounds your own properties, and ensuring that it is maintained, is in our opinion the start of a possible wider national programme that should take root and gain momentum. If you are able to effectively do this, the initiative can then be expanded to take in areas that are not necessarily in the immediate vicinity of your business. The adoption of other physical areas for maintenance and upkeep by our business owners and mangers should not be ruled out as a national programme, which could be set up and managed by the BHTA. We consider this to be a practical workable solution to many of our physical environmental challenges, as we simply cannot leave the fixing of all our challenges to the government. We need to act and to act now.
In this regard and at the collective level the BHTA has done well, utilizing some of our product development resources in conjunction with the Limegrove project to help to beautify the “Holetownâ€ bridge for example, a project that we considered important being located in the heart of our island’s first major town. But we can’t stop there and we must clean up Barbados.