Tourism, the main engine of our economy, has been firing on all cylinders for decades, employing tens of thousands, earning millions in foreign exchange, generating huge tax revenues and delivering wide economic and social benefits aplenty.
But now this engine is misfiring, and yesterday’s revelations by Central Bank Governor Cleviston Haynes on tourism delivering fewer visitors and less revenue during its high season, should give us pause.
Delivering his economic review for 2018, Governor Haynes reported that tourism arrivals suffered a hit, with cruise arrivals falling by almost ten per cent. This decline spurred the economy to contract by 0.1 per cent in the last quarter.
Said the central bank chief: “Tourism was slightly weaker than we would have had at the end of September, so we will see that the rate of growth for tourism has fallen to 0.6 per cent itself and that largely explains the performance.
“Part of that is due to the softening of arrivals during the month of December and there was also some weakening of the cruise sector, although the cruise sector is relatively small in the overall scope of the assessment of the tourism sector.”
Tourism output has fallen by 1.6 per cent from 2.2 per cent in 2017. This, Haynes said, was due to the fact that the average length of stay had declined, despite long stay arrivals being 2.8 per cent higher than the previous year.
The governor is nonetheless confident that somehow our main engine will somehow sputter to life in 2019 with the current England cricket tour, an anticipated expansion of airlift, and an increase in cruiseliners docking at the port.
It is noteworthy that the report comes just ahead of next Monday’s merger of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc (BTMI) and the Barbados Tourism Product Authority (BTPA), which according to the two entities’ chairman, Sunil Chatrani, will create a singular, strong organisation to oversee the marketing and product development of destination Barbados.
Clearly, the new entity will have much on its plate as it works to reverse our flagging fortunes, which have been compounded no doubt by increasing competition and the likely impact of Brexit on UK travellers’ plans, among other things.
Last year, Minister of Tourism and International Transport Kerrie Symmonds was unequivocal: “The culture of complacency with respect to brand Barbados has come to an end.”
We have no doubt that the minister is up to the challenge of transforming the tourism industry. So, let the action begin.
We believe he may want to start by reviewing the impact of taxes imposed on the industry last year: the room rate levy which could be as high as $10 per room nightly, depending on the class of the accommodation, and the airline travel and tourism development fee takes US$70 from passengers leaving the island.
Just how much did these measures contribute to tourism’s lacklustre performance in the last quarter of 2018?
Our desperate need for revenue is generally understood and accepted by all. But the authorities must ask themselves earnestly whether these levies are counterproductive, drive tourists away to more affordable destinations or force those who still to come to shores to shorten their stay or slash their spending.
Authorities, too, will also want to play closer attention to the drop in cruise travel. Minister Symmonds, who signalled early in his ministry that Barbados was behind its regional counterparts in cashing in on cruising, had set up a national cruise commission to help the sector overcome its challenges.
We are aware that the commission has held town hall meetings. The country deserves some update on progress made and actions taken, particularly since more ships are set to berth here this year.
And as always, the challenge is to offer the world a competitive, value-for-money product beyond the sea-sun-sand cliché, particularly in a world where modern tourism is driven by the quality of travel experiences.
The task before our tourism authorities, therefore, will be to ensure that Barbados becomes a year-round destination that offers outstanding, fresh, affordable attractions, world-class accommodation and top-notch service. Barbados needs to maintain its visibility in our traditional markets — the United States, Canada, Britain and continental Europe — and beef up our presence in Latin America, and emerging markets such as Asia.
But beyond its macroeconomic returns, we urge the Government to develop policy that spreads tourism’s wealth among more of our citizens. It should embrace those entrepreneurial who, to re-coin the old tourism mantra, make a friend for Barbados today by welcoming thousands of savvy travellers to their Airbnb-listed homes. It needs to promote the notion of a nation that is friendly to all not satellites of a cash-wielding few.
And above all, we need to grow up and grow out of the need to equate service with servility, for the good of all, visitors and nationals alike.
It will take a nation, not just an agency, to raise our game.