Though no one could have foreshadowed the advent of COVID 19, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that threats yet conceived, no matter their constitution, will wreak havoc upon us if we do not have resilient tourism industries. I therefore submit to you a line of reasoning encased in the notion of resilience and bifurcated by an assessment of tourism impacts. Thinking of that which would be “sustainable” offers some context in which to root this treatise by guiding it along economic, environmental and socio-cultural dimensions.
What we get out of tourism
Tourism revenues have dissipated almost overnight because of COVID-19. This has immediately reinforced for several Caribbean destinations the consequence of tourism activity for our economies; it is an impact which is central and very frontal.
However, there has always arguably been a lesser focus on how tourism is managed through environmental and socio-cultural lenses. Environmentally, this could admittedly be because legislative provisions to preserve the built environment are generically applied at the national level enjoining tourism through dictates such as Town and Country planning provisions.
Considering tourism plays a role in cultural assimilation reflected in our portrayals of foreign behaviors, it is safe to say there has been even lesser acuity in relation to its socio-cultural gains. Conclusively, gaps prevail, especially in the region’s ability to extract environmental and socio-cultural value from its tourism activity.
What we have to surrender to tourism
In simple terms, our investment in tourism creates an opportunity cost in many respects. Principally though, our focus on developing the industry is at the expense of developing another potential export. There is also an opportunity cost in how we allocate the trappings that would attend such, like the various incentive and developmental policies.
What is the basis for a structural change?
Across the Caribbean, Ministries of Tourism generally establish policy, with the region’s tourism bureaus primarily exhibiting an overt marketing focus. The challenge with this constitution is that it reduces the ability to effectively and comprehensively implement policy which is specifically targeted towards legitimizing both supporting and unrelated sectors and other aspects of destination management.
No matter how inclined the executives of a destination marketing organization (DMO) may be towards comprehensive destination management, their mettle is derived from their ability to establish strong relations between the local industry and international travel trade partners. The irony for our region, however, is that this thrust is often primarily targeted towards the accommodation sector and then supplemented by attractions. This is ironic because the general basis of tourism is that attractions are the core reason for leisure travel. After all, we travel not to stay in an accommodation but rather for an experience regardless of how that experience is constituted.
The key point here is that if ‘attractions’ are the nuclei of leisure travel, should the management of the industry not firstly surround the development of this core motive? I must admit that I never fully understood the prevailing charter of DMOs in the Caribbean in relation to land based tourism. For the most part, they are publicly funded organizations which establish demand on the basis of the accommodation supply sector, with the expectation that visitor spend would then trickle down throughout other aspects of the industry once the visitors arrive in the region.
Reflecting upon the foregoing, I therefore postulate that the evolution of our DMOs would engender more benefits in tourism in relation to those economic, socio-cultural and environmental dimensions expressed initially.
My contemplation is as follows: Ministries of Tourism establish policy. Tourism investment boards, where implemented, advocate for and facilitate opportunities to capitalize on that policy. DMOs focus on disseminating perceived outcomes of that policy through the destination’s value proposition. But tourism is multidisciplinary and omnipresent. So who is operationalizing the policy at a granular level and on a day-to-day basis? This, I submit, is our current gap.
Rebuilding our region’s Destination Marketing Organizations as Destination Management and Marketing Organizations (DMMOs)
I believe there are opportunities for Caribbean destinations to use tourism to propel our wider economic development as opposed to underpinning our development by tourism. As you allow that thought to steep, I hope you will appreciate that the difference therein, though subtle, is substantive, because it fertilizes my ensuing reflection.
Tourism bureaus across the region would be adopting a holistic management perspective as opposed to being primarily marketing organizations. In doing so, these entities would serve a wider cross-section of functions to ensure the industry is truly sustainable and resilient, each of which would be as relevant and substantive as its focus on marketing. You may notice that marketing is the final point within the below list. I have structured the list this way because I am of the opinion that without a resilient and strong ‘product’ which encompasses all of that I have previously sought to explicate, our marketing would never be as efficacious as it otherwise could be.
Consequently, my thoughts surrounding some of the key considerations would be as follows:
1..Resilience planning to develop strategies and contingencies to respond to a variety of potential threats to the industry;
2..Protect the (a) natural environment, (b) socio-cultural environment, and (c) the economy, from the impacts caused by tourism and ensure that tourism contributes to their viability;
3..Develop strong attractions which align with emerging market interests;
4.Guide the development of the human resource capacity of the industry and facilitate knowledge transfer across its linked industries;
5.Preserve and enhance the physical tourism product;
6.Support the development of other sectors through linkages and the diversification of tourism revenues into unrelated niche areas with high returns, in order to generate income streams; and
7.Continue its focus on network management and marketing so as to maintain and enhance market awareness; establish, develop, and diversify source markets.
COVID-19 has in many ways repulsed us to the proverbial starting line. In the thick of it, whilst the region attempts to recover, I tender that the preceding is an opportunity not to reduce the relevance of tourism but to restructure and come back stronger than we were before.
Kareem Yarde is a Ph.D. candidate at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia