A reputation for anything comes as the result of consistency. Some reputations are purposefully built; others come as a result of notoriety but whether the reputation is purposeful or not, consistency makes it stick.
Barbados, over the years, has taken care to build a tourism reputation based on all the strengths of character of the nation and its people. Unfortunately, over the last few years, we have allowed our reputation to falter in some major areas.
Barbados became known as the island where the people worked hard and assiduously to go above and beyond the call of duty. We were known as the little island that was tidy, orderly and beautiful. The various retrenchments of workers, the prolonged recession which has resulted in workers’ receiving no monetary incentives for their efforts and the general lack of governmental planning has led to an erosion of that particular image.
Additionally, we have never curbed our ZR culture. As more tourists avoid taxis that charge indiscriminate rates to transfer them from one area to a next, our guests now find themselves in the plain view of the loud and very sexualized Barbadian dancehall arena. Every time I am on a minibus and tourists get in, I find myself embarrassed.
While I have the cultural context to make sense of the lyrics and displays on the minibuses, the average tourist is not in possession of these. What a curious thing a ride on a minibus must be for most of them!
Even if the tourists are good spirited enough to welcome the new experience, do we want our international guests returning to their homelands thinking that Barbadians are a lot of oversexed people who allow our children to listen to lewd music in public spaces? Do we want them to believe that the island has no sense of women’s rights and worth and that playing songs which degrade women is acceptable at all hours on public transport?
Let’s go a little further into the deracination of Barbados’ reputation. Last tourist season, there was a shortage of natural gas which caused major headaches for hoteliers. Although the shortage was mainly on the west coast, it also affected areas of the south coast as it went on. Fast forward to the start of the tourist season for 2016 and we have a major issue with the south coast sewage project.
Although the Government has provided very little information about the actual problem, residents have reported foul odours and sightings of raw sewage in the affected areas. There was some mention by the authorities about pumps being sourced from overseas to replace non-functioning ones.
The situation, which has gone on from earlier in the year, has reached the point where it is suspected that there is some contamination of the Graeme Hall Swamp with raw sewage. Dead fish are being sighted in the swamp. The beach at Worthing has had to be closed.
I am not going to jump on the bandwagon about these types of occurrences running tourists. These people come from countries where some of the worst oil spills have taken place. They come from areas which grapple with their own major environmental challenges. What stands the chance to dissuade tourists is not that an episode occurs. To my mind, the more pertinent issue is that Barbados seems to be slowly becoming an island that cannot forward plan or manage an event once it has occurred.
There should have been adequate amounts of gas stored on the island going into a tourist season. Checks should have been made to ensure the country’s readiness for its peak business months. However, if there was an issue during the tourist season, then surely all should be done in the next coming season to ensure that there was nothing but a smooth experience so that the previous year’s happening would be seen as just a glitch.
It becomes harder and harder for people to believe that instances are glitches if they begin to form a patchwork of misses and near misses. On top of all of that, though, is the fact that Barbados’ beaches are still central to the value added sold as destination Barbados. To have a beach closed for an environmental reason in a world where care of the environment is a buzz lobby is horrendous. It is the type of thing that can unravel a reputation overnight.
Obviously, I have lost something somewhere in my thought process because the response of the Government simply does not seem as if it merits understanding that this single event could mean significant trouble for Barbados’ tourism brand. We seem to think that no matter how bushy Barbados gets, or how much we display our ‘dirty linens’ that repeat visitors will keep repeating and that new tourists will choose our high priced island over other options.
I am, however, not so sure. I believe that if we are asking the right questions in the exit surveys, we should perhaps be alarmed by now at some of the trending replies.
The difference with the two types of reputations is that one carefully built and purposefully made can be undone in the snap of a finger if consistency starts to falter. On the other hand, a reputation resulting from notoriety almost never goes away, even if everybody acknowledges that the offending party is trying to do better.
Which reputation does Barbados’ tourist industry have?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)