In quick succession, within the space of three days, Barbados’ pristine image as a leading Caribbean tourism destination has taken a beating on the international stage.
It occurred by way of separate advisories by the governments of Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom alerting their nationals visiting to the island to the increasingly worrying public health issue that is developing along the south coast.
The three governments, whose countries are major source markets for Barbados’ tourism, could have easily reacted long time ago. Over several months, there was recurring evidence of leaking sewers oozing foul-smelling effluent on to some streets and properties along the south coast – an area heavily patronized by tourists. Various interventions by the Barbados Water Authority failed to provide a permanent fix and the problem kept resurfacing.
It seems, however, that the US, Canada and the UK chose to exercise caution, perhaps mindful of the historically close and friendly ties which have always existed with Barbados, not wanting to cause undue damage to the island’s vital economic interests, whilst probably hoping at the same time that local authorities in the meantime would come up with a lasting solution to the problem.
Such a solution remained elusive and, within the last month, the crisis seemed to have reached worryingly new proportions. With a few businesses forced to shut up shop because of the unbearable stench and a number of households revealing they were looking to move out, the patience of Barbadians too apparently had reached the limit.
Though unwelcome because of the adverse attention they draw to our island, the three advisories are fully understandable. It is a government’s duty, wherever its citizens are, to look out for their best interests which is what Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States have done.
Fortunately, the last two advisories were issued as the BWA was finally reporting that it was seeing encouraging results from its efforts to fix the problem. Confirming the BWA’s statement, a few residents and workers in the area reported not seeing any sewage-contaminated water on the streets over the past few days or having to contend with foul-smelling odours. Though welcoming the improvement, they said they would adopt a wait-and-see attitude before determining if, at long last, the issue was finally over.
There are many lessons which our authorities can learn from this unfortunate episode which has left a blemish on the Barbados tourism brand. One relates to the need for developing an effective capability for managing risk issues and crises that have the potential to cause major brand and reputational damage. As seen throughout this crisis, such capability is woefully deficient or totally absent.
Silence is not an effective response to a crisis, as our authorities seem to believe. Rather, continuous engagement is what is needed with the relevant stakeholders to provide reassurance, retain trust and limit any negative fallout. It seems, as well, based on observations during this unfortunate episode, that our authorities are pretty much lost at sea when it comes to implementing an effective social media strategy to counter in particular some of the misinformation which may have ended up in the marketplace about what was happening on the south coast.
A lot of this information was put out there by visitors, rather than Barbadians themselves, using such well-known sites as TripAdvisor where global travelers share the good, bad and ugly about places they have visited. What is urgently required now to restore consumer confidence in the marketplace is a major damage control intervention, specifically targeting Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
More than any other industry perhaps, tourism is image/perception-driven. Decisions to visit a destination are often made on the basis of images in the prospective consumer’s head – images formed as a result of information received directly from family, friends and associates who have visited the destination or information they would have picked up via the media. Restoring the pristine image of Barbados must be the overriding objective of any damage control intervention.
Meanwhile, congratulations are in order to the BWA teams who undoubtedly worked tirelessly and against great odds to fix the problem, even though the solution oftentimes would have appeared elusive. We hope further progress is made over the coming days so that the BWA is able, not too long from now, to announce that the nagging problem has been finally fixed and, more importantly, permanently too. It is then and only then that the country will be able to breath a collective sigh of relief.