For several weeks, there had been persistent reports of a malfunctioning south coast sewerage system. The problem not only made occasional headlines in the mainstream media but also generated considerable discussion on Internet sites where Barbadians hang out and discuss various issues.
Business operators, residents and persons traversing sections of the south coast complained of sighting what they believed was raw effluent flowing in the street, and having to deal with an awful stench. There were complaints too of foul-smelling brown water overflowing from the Graeme Hall swamp into the sea at Worthing Beach which is popular with locals and visitors.
Concerns were raised about possible threats to public health and the adverse effect which any related negative publicity could have on the all-important tourism sector, especially with the approach of the peak winter season. As we have come to expect from the incumbent administration, there was deafening silence, noticeably at the ministerial level.
No one really could definitively say whether action was being taken or not, for the simple reason that the relevant stakeholders and the general public were not being informed. The seeming lack of concern prompted prominent attorney-at-law Ralph Thorne, QC, the Opposition Barbados Labour Party’s candidate for Christ Church South, to inform affected residents and other aggrieved parties that there was legal recourse they could take.
Eventually, Dr John Mwanza, general manager of the Barbados Water Authority, which has responsibility for management of the island’s sewerage systems, denied raw sewage was seeping into the streets and suggested the problem stemmed from tampering with manholes on the system.
By last weekend, the issue had mushroomed and taken a serious turn. It was no longer localized but had gone global via social media, especially the tourism-related site, TripAdvisor, which visitors were using to tell the world what was transpiring on the south coast. It seems it had to reach this crisis stage – for that is exactly what it is – to spur the authorities into action, at least where informing the public is concerned.
At any rate, the damage has already been done. The main challenge now is to limit the fall-out and provide strong reassurances to the global market that the concerns are being frontally addressed.
Tourism, our no.1 foreign exchange earner and main driver of the Barbados economy, is supersensitive when it comes to negative publicity that speaks of possible risk to the safety of visitors, including their health.
Businesspeople interviewed in the media said a number of visitors planning to holiday here in the coming months were having second thoughts as a result of what they had read online. A few tourists who saw the foul-smelling brown water entering Worthing Beach, which was closed over the weekend, also said they were not coming back. It is likely, given human nature, that they will share their negative experience with relatives, friends, and associates.
Our tourism authorities clearly have a major challenge on their hands at a time when the island, given the serious economic challenges being experienced, needs to be maximizing all available opportunities through tourism to earn foreign exchange by making this winter season one of the best ever. With a pro-active response, it could all have been avoided.
Opposition Leader Mia Mottley toured the south coast yesterday, as a Government multi-sectoral team of technical specialists hastily convened a meeting to come up with a solution to the problem. Mottley told reporters the situation was such that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart should address the nation on the issue. She has a point.
Mr Stuart is Champion of the National Tourism Host Programme which was conceived to enhance the on-island visitor experience. Additionally, Mr Stuart regularly hosts longstanding visitors at his official Ilaro Court residence during the peak winter season. He uses these receptions to thank his guests for choosing Barbados as their preferred vacation destination and to encourage them to spread the good word about Barbados.
We hope, in the national interest, that this crisis will quickly blow away and that damage to the island’s image as a destination will be minimal.
There are invaluable lessons to be learnt, however. One is that delaying to take timely action or being perceived as doing such, in relation to vexing issues that can mushroom into full-blown crises, can be quite costly.
It often takes years for a tourist destination to build up a favourable image and reputation. These, however, can be easily destroyed in a matter of hours by a crisis which is poorly handled.