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By Ralph Jemmott
For this year’s Tourism Week, the Hospitality Industry chose as its theme, “Rethinking Tourism”. I have jested about what I termed the number of ‘Re’ words that have come to characterise so many Barbadian “conversations” and “narratives”. These include reform, reboot, rebrand, retool, re-imagine, re-profile, redefine and the list goes on. They all have one thing in common. They all represent a genuine dissatisfaction with something that in terms of efficacy outcomes is inefficient, unproductive or underperforming in one way or another. They may also reflect an equally genuine desire to ameliorate or correct what is viewed as a deteriorating or unsustainable situation.
Let us face the fact that Tourism was, is, and is likely to remain Barbados and the Caribbean’s prime foreign exchange earner. It is now common to hear persons complain that with tourism, Barbados placed all its eggs in one basket. This is to ignore how many eggs the basket held and how we benefited from the golden eggs that the tourism goose provided over the years. Today it still represents over 14 percent of Barbados’ GDP and contributes to the prime socio-economic objectives of developing states. These include revenue income, employment opportunities and foreign currency earnings. Without tourism Barbados would be little or nothing.
Dr. Acolla Cameron, Dean of the faculty of Social Sciences at the U.W.I. St. Augustine, speaking at the recent Caribbean World Tourism Forum stated: “The industry had played a critical role in the socio-economic development of the Caribbean creating job opportunities, paving the way for infrastructural projects and facilitating many foreign and local investments with trickle down benefits to the wider society.”
In spite of all the talk about the imperatives of economic diversification, we are still searching for an alternative that could even supplement the hospitality industry. In spite of the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, global tourism has shown a remarkable resilience. Ernest Amadoe writing for the Barbados TODAY publication, notes that pre-Pandemic Tourism contributed 10.3 of global Gross Domestic Product. It has now rebounded to contribute to $U.S. 5.81 trillion to global GDP. The pandemic lockdown may have created some degree of pent-up demand for travel.
Tourism like all other forms of human economic endeavour has its vulnerabilities. One year a vegetable farmer might have a bumper crop only to be wiped out a year later by a drought or a flood. Animal pathologies can kill off an entire herd. For one reason or another, as they say, ‘the bottom falls out of the
market.’ As the American historian Jon Meacham has pointed out human life is contingent, there are no afore seen and predictable outcomes.
In her address to the Caribbean World Tourism Forum Dr. Cameron listed a number of drawbacks to the Barbadian and regional hospitality regime that might justify a “rethink”. Some of these drawbacks are environmental, including natural habitat loss, reduction in biodiversity and lack of access to sites by locals, leading to feelings of dispossession and alienation. These are all manageable with the right policies that strike a balance between the economic claims of tourism and the legitimate concerns of the local populations.
What is more fundamental to policy rethinking are concerns about economic leakages and the fact that the financial returns from tourism may not be filtering down to the lower strata of the society, at least not to the extent that one might wish. The two are of course connected. If, for one reason or another much of the tourism revenues remains off-shore, then the trickle down may become a mere drip.
These concerns should not be left to talkative academic with talk of “the need to be creative and build resilience,” or flowering notions of “a great need for innovative models, new policy development and marketing objectives” with “a focus on exploring fund-raising opportunities and investments.” As the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Chairperson Renee Coppin has said, Rethinking Tourism “must be more than an intellectual pursuit, but a call to action and to change the industry for the better.” We are paying out too much money for too few outcomes
If we are seriously Re-thinking Tourism we should honestly look at expanding the country’s hospitality attractions that would keep the tourists returning to Barbados. It is amazing how many of our attractions have fallen by the wayside over the years. The Jolly Roger has gone as it priced itself out of the market. Others include the Bird Sanctuary at Graeme Hall, the Water Park at Balls in Christ Church and the ‘1627 and All That’ show near the old Pepperpot sight in Maxwell, which used to be well attended and of great interest to visitors who wanted to know something of the island’s history and culture. That show could be updated and performed twice a week at the Frank Collymore Hall or elsewhere during the tourist season. It would provide scope for actors, musicians , dancers, singers and the
truly creative. For years in relation to entertainment, our tourism product has become stale and outdated compared to what it was in the 1970’s.
My Canadian friends complain that apart from the beautiful beaches there is little for children to do here. Older folks complain of not having a club where more mature folks can dance to the oldies away from the noise of the youth, like the Flambeau Bar at the old Hilton hotel. There is no equivalent to the Alexandra’s Nightclub in Collymore Rock or the Limbo shows at the Paradise and the Island Inn. If we are serious about Re-thinking tourism we must think deep. Shallow platitudes will not
Finally, tourism is a product like any other. Barbados is an experience that we hope visitors will enjoy and pay for. Our product competes in a very high-end market with places like Cancun, Bali, the Maldives and Hawaii. It should be reasonably affordable, clean and safe, just beyond our guests’ imagination.
Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and regular contributor on social issues.