Overcoming Challenges to the Sustainability of our Tourism Model

According to the joint publication entitled, “Tourism and Trade”, a Global Agenda for Sustainable Development”, which was published in 2015, international tourism accounted for 30% of global trade in services.  Moreover, tourism is the main export of approximately one-third of developing countries, with Barbados falling into this category.  The paper goes on to state that “Tourism…has a key role to play in maximising the contribution of trade in services to development, job creation, and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (‘SDGs’)”.

The business of tourism is an important player in the sphere of international trade in services.  It is multi-sectoral and in a country such as Barbados, touches and concerns almost every aspect of society, from job creation and the maintenance thereof, to the cleanliness of the environment and the sale of goods.  What does this mean for Barbados and how do we fit into an increasingly competitive sector?  It has been written that tourism is expected to continue expanding and as stated in the World Tourism Organization’s publication, “Tourism Towards 2030”, tourism arrivals would reach 1.8 billion by 2030 (5 million per day).  Additionally, emerging economies are expected to see an increase of their share to 57% by 2030.

These are some impressive numbers but again, what does it mean for Barbados?  What is the industry’s contribution to the country’s GDP?  The World Travel & Tourism Council reported that in 2017, the direct contribution of Travel & Tourism to GDP was US$608.3 million or 13% of total GDP, which was an increase over the previous year.  More specifically, in May 2017 former Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, Dr. DeLisle Worrell stated that tourism was the largest earner of foreign exchange, contributing 49% of same to the economy.  These figures show that the sector remains a significant earner for Barbados.

The question is, could we improve?  Do we need to?  The simple answer is yes, there is always room for improvement, particularly in a highly competitive region.  The cries are numerous.  One hears rumblings that Barbados is an expensive destination and that the tourists are arriving in droves but are spending less.  Is there truth to these statements?  According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017 of the World Economic Forum, Barbados ranks at number 58 out of 136 countries on the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index (Barbados was ranked at number 41 in the 2015 report).  Countries obtaining a higher listing include Greece, France, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, some of which have similar tropical environments.  Positively, Barbados ranks at number 8 for prioritisation of travel and tourism, with only Jamaica as an island in the Caribbean region ranking above it at number 6.

Moreover, Barbados was ranked at 134 out of 136 for price competitiveness, followed only by the United Kingdom and Switzerland, which are notoriously expensive destinations.  Also striking was that Barbados was ranked at 123rd for cultural resources and business travel.  From an international point of view, therefore, improvements can be made.  While we focus on increasing the hotel complement and maintaining our natural resources of sand and sea (not much can be done about the sun, although so far we haven’t been disappointed), some of our attractions as a “high-end” destination have floundered, save for a vibrant restaurant industry.

The majority of tourists who come to these shores originate from the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, the United Kingdom being the region with the most historical ties to the island.  We have laid a foundation as the hideaway of persons of wealth and the properties on the west coast can attest to that fact.  However, what of the modern tourist?  The wealthy traveler still comes to Barbados and remains a repeat visitor but what of attempts to attract millenial tourists or young professionals who might otherwise travel to a less expensive and extremely popular locale such as Costa Rica, Santorini or Mykonos?

An opinion was expressed by Executive Director and Professor of Strategy at the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business that Barbados lacked attractions beyond its natural resources, which was causing it to falter badly when compared with international competitors.  On a positive note, Barbados remains known not only for its beaches and favourable tropical climate, but for Harrison’s Cave, Oistins Bay Garden, Kensington Oval, the recently opened Nikki Beach Barbados, Welchman Hall Gully, Andromeda Botanic Gardens and its palate-pleasing array of restaurants from roadside vendors and food trucks to fine dining restaurants.  However, are these ‘places of interest’ diverse enough?  Do they need to be?  Recent history will show that we have seen the demise of out-of-the-box attractions such as Ocean Park, Aerial Trek and Oughterson Zoo.  Further, a number of years ago a resounding NO was the response to whether casinos should be opened on the island and a plan for a water theme park never came to fruition.

This brings us to the question of whether our tourist attractions need to journey beyond the current offerings.  The simple answer is yes.  It is not enough to record extremely high tourist arrivals but not record a commensurate level of spending by the visitor.  The good news is that our island has started on the path of diversification, with one of the major success stories being the Barbados Fertility Center, which has brought many hopeful mothers and parents to these shores, including a celebrity or two.  However, Barbados currently lacks a vibrant nightlife in Bridgetown, the capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are many derelict buildings in and about Bridgetown, including what used to be the Empire Theatre, there are no theme parks and some of our major historical buildings which could be used for tours are catching dust.

It is true that we have been promoting our festivals (Crop Over, the Vujaday Music Festival, Animekon, polo and Sandylane Gold Cup), which have been successful in bringing persons to our shores for a few days at a time but attractions which have a steady sustainability are an excellent complement to such festivals.

Some ideas: if Barbados is to make heritage tourism a major revenue earner, our sites must be well maintained (and in some instances, restored) and promoted online.  For health and wellness tourism, there may be a need for niche market hospitals, medical and rehabilitation centres to be granted government concessions for the importation of equipment and tools so as to offset already high costs of operation.  Finally, the ability to offer world-class accommodation, transport and medical services as well as superior negotiating skills for broadcast and related rights goes hand-in-hand with sports tourism.

To conclude, being a high-cost destination is not a negative for Barbados but it is extremely important that neither do we price ourselves out of the market nor do we miss opportunities to structure our tourism product around attractions which give persons an incentive to travel to the island.  The most important factor however, is to ensure that the environment is clean, services are provided as seamlessly as possible, the customer service experience is improved and that generally, there is a united focus on the country’s tourism offerings.




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