“There are more questions than answers, and the more I find out the less I know.”
– More Questions than Answers, Johnny Nash
In Government’s continuing efforts to rebuild our battered economy, and as an indicator that “Barbados is open for business again”, many proposals have come in for new hotel properties.
Apart from the Hyatt in the heart of Bridgetown, there is talk of Carlisle House and its adjacent car park being made into a hotel; there is another project at the building that currently houses the Waterfront Cafe; indeed, we have even heard about a stretch of hotels from the Pierhead in the City of Bridgetown all the way to Batts Rock on the border of St Michael and St James. And more recently, the planned redevelopment of the Blue Horizon property at Rockley on the south coast into a much more elaborate structure has generated much controversy.
While such investments might refresh what some consider to be a tired tourism product, and will generate jobs in the construction phase and after these properties open, let’s be honest: our track record on completing new big hotel projects has not been stellar of late.
The Four Seasons project barely got off the ground, and has been abandoned for 11 winter tourist seasons now; Beaches at the former Almond Beach Village has been on hold since the beginning of the year, and the authorities have been completely silent on the all-new Sam Lord’s Castle. Does it not make more sense to try to get these projects finished first before starting some that are even bigger?
In September 2016, then Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy announced a further two billion dollars in investment would be coming to build up our room stock.
He told the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s (CTO) State of the Industry Conference, that Barbados is hoping to add a further 2,000 rooms to the existing room stock by 2019.
Can we presume that the Hyatt, Four Seasons and Sam Lord’s Castle developments accounted for some of those rooms? If so, what of the others? And what impact can this surfeit of rooms have on the nature and market for our product? Are we going for mass tourism as the Dominican Republic has done give the maturity of our destination?
And even before we build all these new hotels, we must consider the worldwide trend of tourists moving away from seeking accommodation in the ‘tourist belts’ where they are subjected to higher prices, constant harassment from taxi drivers and people selling everything, including sex and drugs.
Government often speaks about community tourism, and it has been catching on here in recent years. Barbados itself has 300 sites listed on Airbnb, ranging from US$11 to US$2,500 per night. This accommodation is all over the island – from “tent cities” to a converted Transport Board bus to villas and condominiums. And there may be many other Barbadians offering such accommodation who might not be registered with Airbnb.
Environmental Impact Assessments are considered an expense many investors try to avoid, but these are extremely important given the scale of these developments.
The problems with the sewage treatment facilities in Bridgetown and the south coast are well documented, so if these projects do come to pass, Government will definitely have to expand the existing facilities before we are faced with an even bigger crisis.
Storm surge is also a very real threat, especially in the area of the Wharf, when Hurricane Ivan passed here in 2004 and knocked the old Coast Guard base at Fort Willoughby out of commission and completely obliterated the chattel house shops at the Bridgetown Port. And we did not even get the full brunt of that system.
And where will the land come from to build this stretch of hotels from the Pierhead to Batts Rock? Well, you guessed it; whoever is responsible will have to buy it from its present owners – some of whom have held it for generations – putting them out of a home and out of pocket given the time it usually takes to compensate landowners. Will these investors pay to relocate them elsewhere and build their new houses for them? Not likely.
How will these hotels add to the aesthetic value of their locations? The artist’s impression of the proposed Hyatt in Bay Street already sticks out in that part of The City. Where is its car park? How far back does it stretch to the beachfront? Wouldn’t a smaller, say, four-storey building with a ‘classic’ design in keeping with the Heritage Site designation make more sense in that part of The City than the twelve-storey monolith in the illustrations? How will it affect the people living in London Bourne Towers and Wellington Street, not to mention the many businesses and the Fire Service headquarters in that vicinity? Simply moving businesses and institutions is not the answer, especially if the project actually gets going and for whatever reason is put on hold after all the disruption.
Townhall meetings tend to come up after contracts have already been signed and work is about to start. This should never be the case with projects of this magnitude. The people behind these projects should let those who will be most affected have a say when they come up with their ideas, take their concerns seriously, especially the environmental ones coming from people who in some cases have lived and worked in the area all their lives, and then proceed with something that will truly benefit all parties involved.
The current practices of starting work and asking questions later and starting something that never finishes should not be allowed to continue if we are serious about development in this country.
For now, there are more questions than answers. We seek illumination that considers long-term growth, not short-term gain.