Time and again, this pandemic has confirmed what we already knew – that this country’s dependence on tourism is a potentially fatal flaw.
In the last week, we found a MInister of Tourism sounding notes as discordantly triumphant as the Minister of Agriculture would if he said that “sugar will bounce back”. For the last half-century, we have substituted one form of monoculture for another.
Just as the mandarins in the agriculture ministry have stressed the need for food security, even when no famine, war or pestilence stalked the land, the economic planners have seen warning after warning that we edge closer to the precipice of doom, as we derive too much of our progress from a fickle mistress.
Nothing but nothing stops would-be visitors from shifting their preference from one destination to another in a heartbeat. So when developers came up with the Hyatt Centric hotel, smack dab in the middle of a UNESCO-listed place of heritage and historic importance, critics were right to question everything about this project and call for soundings to be taken of its likely social and environmental impact – a call that cut across two administrations.
For a mature tourism destination such as Barbados, boutique hotels such as the Centric brand, are ideal in seeking to extract experiences for world-weary travellers. Even the stoutest opponents must have been heartened by the brochures that Hyatt Centric hotels “are centrally located so you can explore your destination’s hot spots, hidden gems, and local sounds”. Because that’s exactly what you’d do in a city hotel – go out and explore, browse, shop, dine, drink, be entertained – and walk back to your hotel room.
Doubtless, the environmental impact assessment saw the likely boom to the raft of businesses, large, medium and small, that populate a capital city many citizens shun owing to congestion, parking difficulties, land a lack of attractions, entertainment, parks and pedestrian malls. For some time, life has been draining from our beloved City, as if the blood of a beautiful but comatose woman drains out of every artery and alley.
We have already painted a dire picture of our capital’s steady atrophy; like a house divided unto itself, our nation cannot grow and thrive with a dead capital.
We have championed the ideas of a group of young University of the West Indies students who have proposed a makeover of cultural and heritage attractions in Bridgetown to attract more people and boost tourist spending.
They recommended five “core strategies” to drive tourism development: collaboration and partnership, development of Bridgetown, expanding the visitor experience, marketing and targeting of new markets, and continuous research.
The students also recommended the formulation of a task force and annual measurement to determine the improvements’ economic and social impact.
They saw the potential for more visitors, more involved residents, economic opportunities, and growth of the local heritage and culinary tourism niche. And the kind of hotel that Hyatt Centric promised to be, so did we. With the development of the Golden Square-Probyn Street area, we were even more convinced.
The students, candidates for the tourism master’s degree UWI at Cave Hill, proposed a ten-year “strategic plan” involving the setting up of a “multi-stakeholder” group.
Under the proposed plan, old buildings would be restored, starting with those of historical significance; seating areas would be enhanced; the aesthetics of the town would be improved “along a folklore/heritage line”; and interactive signage would increase, as would security presence and CCTV surveillance cameras.
Among the areas recommended for immediate consideration are Trafalgar Square, Parliament Buildings, Independence Square, The Careenage, St Mary’s Anglican Church, Jubilee Gardens, National Heroes Square, the Chamberlain Bridge and Pelican Village
Unlikely as it may be that the ideas of a band of young Barbadians would be adopted by any administration – for government is where good ideas usually go to die – we had hoped that the coronavirus pandemic might yet cause the prevailing attitudes of intransigence, to perish from the virus.
But months before the pandemic gripped the country, in the dying embers of 2019, while the tumult of anti–Hyatt criticism died away, the Centric designation was dropped, along with its designs on integrating City life into a City hotel, a feature that vanished with the Trafalgar Hotel 50 years ago.
Quietly, “Centric” became “Ziva”. But this seemingly innocuous ‘re-branding’ is significant, and telling, both of the perilous state of our main economic engine and the quiet efforts of those who cast their lots on tourism’s rebound.
But this is how we do things in Barbados still.
For overnight, the boutique business and entertainment hotel became yet another all-inclusive resort. The prospect, then, for the service providers, small traders and vendors keen to see Hyatt pour money, people and dollars back into Bridgetown, remains to be seen.
Even as the condos and conference centre hint at much-needed city residents and business and convention activity, one wonders if all-inclusive Hyatt Ziva will absorb all of the occupants’ needs.
We hope the dreams of entrepreneurs and long-suffering city dwellers will not be deferred, and the value of a world heritage site is not diminished…
But this is how things happen in Barbados. A viral pandemic need not apply.
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