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By Ralph Jemmott
For this year’s Tourism Week, the hospitality industry has chosen “Rethinking Tourism” as its theme. I joked about what I called the number of “Re” words that have come to characterize so many Barbadian “conversations” and “narratives”. These include reform, reboot, rename, retool, re-imagine, re-profile, redefine and the list goes on. They all have one thing in common. They all represent genuine dissatisfaction with something that, in terms of efficiency outcomes, is inefficient, unproductive, or underperforming in some way. They may also reflect an equally sincere desire to improve or correct what is seen as a deteriorating or unsustainable situation.
Let’s face the fact that tourism was, is, and will likely remain Barbados and the Caribbean’s main source of foreign currency. It is now common to hear people complaining that with tourism, Barbados has put all its eggs in one basket. This is ignoring how many eggs the basket contained and how we have benefited from the golden eggs the tourism goose has provided over the years. Today, it still accounts for over 14% of Barbados’ GDP and contributes to key socio-economic goals in developing states. These include income, job opportunities and foreign exchange earnings. Without tourism, Barbados would be little or nothing.
Dr. Acolla Cameron, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at UWI St. Augustine, speaking at the recent Caribbean World Tourism Forum, said: “The industry has played a vital role in the socio- economy of the Caribbean by creating job opportunities, paving the way for infrastructure projects and facilitating numerous foreign and local investments with beneficial spin-offs for society at large.
Despite all the rhetoric about the imperatives of economic diversification, we are still looking for an alternative that could even complement the hotel industry. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, global tourism has shown 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 US$5.81 trillion to global GDP. The pandemic lockdown may have created some pent-up demand for travel.
Tourism, like all other forms of human economic activity, has its vulnerabilities. One year a market gardener may have a bumper crop only to be wiped out a year later by a drought or flood. Animal pathologies can kill an entire herd. For some reason, as they say, “the bottom falls from the
market.’ As American historian Jon Meacham has pointed out, human life is contingent, there are no predictable and predictable outcomes.
In his address to the Global Caribbean Tourism Forum, Dr Cameron listed a number of downsides to the Barbadian and regional hospitality regime that could warrant an ‘overhaul’. Some of these disadvantages are environmental, including loss of natural habitats, reduced biodiversity and lack of access to sites by locals, leading to feelings of dispossession and alienation. All of this is manageable with the right policies that balance the economic claims of tourism with the legitimate concerns of local populations.
More fundamental to policy rethinking are concerns about economic leakage and the fact that financial returns from tourism may not filter down to the lower layers of society, at least not as much as one might wish. . The two are of course linked. If for some reason a large portion of tourism revenue stays offshore, then the runoff can become a mere drip.
These concerns should not be left to talkative academics who speak of “the need to be creative and build resilience” or flourishing notions of “great need for innovative models, new policy development and goals of marketing” with “a focus on fundraising – increasing opportunities and investments. As Barbados Chair of Hospitality and Tourism, 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 pay too much money for too little results
If we are seriously rethinking tourism, we should honestly consider expanding the country’s tourist attractions that would keep tourists coming back to Barbados. It’s amazing how many of our attractions have been abandoned over the years. The Jolly Roger left because it went out of business. Others include Graeme Hall Bird Sanctuary, Balls in Christ Church Water Park and the ‘1627 and All That’ show near the former Pepperpot site in Maxwell, which was once very busy and a large interest for visitors who wanted to know something about the history and culture of the island. This show could be updated and played twice a week at Frank Collymore Hall or elsewhere during the tourist season. It would provide space for actors, musicians, dancers, singers and
really creative. For years, when it comes to entertainment, our tourism product has become stale and outdated from what it was in the 1970s.
My Canadian friends complain that apart from the beautiful beaches, there is not much to do here for children. Older people complain that they don’t have a club where more mature people can dance to oldies away from the noise of youth, like the Flambeau Bar at the former Hilton hotel. There is no equivalent to Alexandra’s Nightclub at Collymore Rock or the Limbo shows at Paradise and the Island Inn. If we really want to rethink tourism, we need to think deeply. Superficial platitudes will not be
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 the imagination of our customers.
Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and regular contributor on social issues.