Most of us are likely to be familiar with the phrase, lies – damn lies – and statistics, attributed to Mark Twain, who himself had attributed it to the British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli.
However, not many of us are familiar with the reference by Leonard H Courtney, later Lord Courtney, in New York in 1895:
“After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, ‘Lies – damn lies – and statistics’, still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.”
It is the statistics that interest us most as we reflect on the recent war of words between Minister of Tourism Kerrie Symmonds and his predecessor, Richard Sealy, over the state of the cruise sector here.
In their attempts at one-upmanship, both quoted numbers to establish their positions.
It was Mr Symmonds who fired the first salvo last weekend when he painted a picture of an industry in “deep state of crisis”, revealing at a news conference that a study on the industry indicated that despite rising numbers of arrivals, the sector was failing. Cruise passenger spend had dropped to a low 47 per cent within the past ten years, he said.
“In my view, unless imminent and immediate and fundamental alternatives are put in place, we are confronting ourselves with catastrophic failure,” the minister stressed.
Quoting surveys by the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO), Symmonds said the average spend of the 725,020 cruise visitors to Barbados in 2016 was US$60, dropping to US$58 in 2017 despite record 818,752 cruise arrivals.
However, Mr Sealy fired back, insisting he left behind a vibrant cruise sector, with record arrivals.
“I really don’t think I have anything to defend because the numbers speak for themselves. We had record numbers as recently as last year and that would not have been the case if the product was as bad as it is being made out to be,” he argued.
This is where the statistics come in, for it is by the numbers we shall know them, if numbers are all that matter.
Mr Sealy is right, in that Barbados attracted a record 818,752 cruise passengers last year, over 155,000 more than the record number of stay-over tourists. What does it say about the sector, therefore, that it contributed only three cents of every dollar we earned from tourism last year?
That’s right. Barbados earned approximately US$1.1 billion from tourism last year, but only $36.9 million or just three per cent, from cruising. Something is wrong with this picture.
Increasingly, Caribbean cruises ships are becoming “destinations in themselves”, and the ports-of-call are “merely added attractions,” according to the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency.
At the same time, we are being asked to invest tens of millions of dollars in cruise facilities and infrastructure to keep them coming. We wonder, what is the return on investment?
We already know how much we make; we would like Mr Sealy or Mr Symmonds to tell us how much we spend in order to raise just $36.9 million.
This is why we felt it was unfair for Prime Minister Mia Mottley to impose such punitive taxes on land-based tourism, which already earns 97 cents of every dollar we make, even though the number of visitors is significantly lower; that she should have begun by increasing the cruise head tax, which is a lowly US6 at present. Compare this to the airline passengers are being asked to carry.
We know that any attempt to increase the head tax will be met by the fires of hell from the cruise lines, as it is not easy to negotiate with an oligopoly. Their record speaks for itself. No matter the proposed increase, they simply threaten to pull out their vessels – and sometimes they do – in an attempt to cajole countries into surrendering.
In 1999, Carnival Cruise Line announced it was pulling out of Grenada over an environmental levy of US$1.50 per passenger that had been imposed on cruise passengers by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean (OECS) as a condition by the World Bank for helping to meet the cost of solid waste management and disposal arising in part from the operations of the cruise industry. This after the cruise lines took it to the other OECS countries.
But Ms Mottley had the country behind her, and an explanation to the country of what she was doing and why, would have secured out support in any battle with the cruise lines to make a fair contribution to the economy.
The fact is, while a war of words between Mr Symmonds and Mr Sealy over who is better quoting statistics might massage their egos, it does nothing to ensure ordinary Barbadians benefit from the cruise sector.
Mr Symmonds has announced a 15-member national cruise development commission to further develop the sector. We hope it does not come up with a series of recommendations that will require us to invest even more, while the sector continues to contribute pennies. What we want are clear recommendations for getting cruise earnings to rise from a measly three cents of every dollar we earn from tourism.
We know what the statistics are and, as Leonard H Courtney said, there are some easy figures the astutest cannot wriggle out of.