An interview with Wesley HALL, Minister of Tourism and Sports
Tourism: Value for money is the name of the game
In 1988 and 89 Barbados had a record number of arrivals
despite a drop in the number of visitors from the United States, its traditional
market. Last year it earned just over one billion Barbados dollars from tourism.
Since the beginning of the current season, however, there has been a significant
drop in arrivals. With competition intensifying in the Caribbean, can Barbados
hold its own? Cricket star Wesley Hall, Minister of Tourism and Sports, believes
it can and explains how. First, The Courier asked him about the
situation so far in terms of arrivals and bed occupancy.
- To answer that question, we have to speak from a background
where, in 1988, we had record arrivals in Barbados - long-stay arrivals, of 451
000 visitors. And in 1989, we had 465 000. So, we broke the record in 1988, and
then again the following year we established another record. So we are coming
over high. From November/December last year, as we predicted, we had a decline
in our arrivals. This was occasioned by the fact that the Americans have been
looking rather inwardly and have been trying to get people to stay at home. And,
in England, for instance, weve had a situation where high interest rates
more or less forced a lot of the people also to curtail their travelling. And
therefore we had projected that we would have a decline in our winter travel.
But I would say, that in December, there was a 7.5 % decrease in long-stay
arrivals. We had 41 632 arrivals, and in January, we had 37 740 which was a
decline of 9.4% This is the norm really in the Caribbean, with a few exceptions.
Cruise ships arrivals, on the other hand, have increased: in December of 1989,
there were 39 757, up 32 % and in January 1990, there were 44 130, up 34%. The
increases continued in cruise ships this year, up to the end of May, when it was
up 14% So, the occupancy will obviously be in a decline, and what we have tried
to do, is to brace ourselves for it in the winter months. December occupancy
rate, about 63.5 %; January 72.7 %; February 79.9%; March 67.6%, and April
70.9%. Admittedly, these are a bit down because we do get the bulk of our
visitors coming here in the winter
· As you have indicated, your main source of tourists is
the United States. The numbers are down. To what extent have these falls been
compensated for by European visitors?
- We used to have about 40% of our visitors coming from America,
but this has gone down to 33 %. In the past year or so, however, we have
intensified our market thrust in Europe. I must say that this was occasioned by
the fall of the American dollar in October 1987. We went to Scandinavia, we have
now gone into France, into Switzerland and into Italy. Now, these are more or
less top of the market destinations - they are the very top of the market, and
they obviously come to us only in the winter, but we have been able to go into
the United Kingdom, also, and since then, there has been a gradual increase out
of England, particularly, and I would say Europe generally.
· Prices are much too high in Barbados. Given the
competition that is bound to intensify in the Caribbean, are you not in danger
of pricing yourself out of the market?
- Well, my answer to that is that Barbados compares favourably
with Antigua, St Kitts, Jamaica and Bahamas. Our problem is that we import most
of our foodstuffs, and the prices of consumer goods are higher than in some
industrialised countries because most consumer goods are imported, as I said,
and this involves transportation costs. But I think to come to this, we have a
very high level of social welfare services. We have a good network of roads, we
have a good telecommunications system, and the electricity works, etc. People
are very comfortable here. I do agree that one tends to get that impression of
high cost. What we like to do is to give people value for money, and once that
is done, I think that you will find that we will be OK. Value for maney is the
name of the game, and therefore we are hoping, with a good product, that we will
be able to make sure that our visitors continue to come. We had the label of
high prices some four or five years ago, but we favourably compare with Antigua,
St Kitts, and the Bahamas, and those are some of the major Caribbean
· Do you have sometimes the impression that Barbados has
probably reached its peak in tourism. Do you still have room for expansion?
- Yes, there is room for expansion. We have about 135 hotels in
Barbados; a good mix - some very expensive, some inexpensive, some middle of the
range and some apartment hotels. So far, we have about 7000 rooms, 14000 beds.
We feel that by the year 2 000, we will increase by about another 1 500. We have
not built a lot of new hotels in the last six years or so. We have been on a
programme of refurbishing. You see, in Barbados, a lot of the small hotels are
owned by Barbadians - about 80% of them, and our position has been to encourage
them to upgrade and thus, in doing so, the Government has embarked on programmes
to help them with their marketing, with their accountancy procedures and,
indeed, with the infrastructure. When this is all completed, we are quite sure
that the smaller hotels will become more intimate; some people love small hotels
rather than the conglomerates, and we think that this good mix is something that
Barbados can well afford.
· What have you done to take care of the socio-cultural and
environmental impacts of tourism in Barbados?
- We are very careful with the environment. Indeed this Ministry
was once in the Ministry of Tourism and Environment, but the environment has
been made a specialist ministry in the Ministry of Labour. We are very conscious
of the sectoral linkages, not only with the environment, but certainly with
industry with agriculture; we need to grow more food local food, so that we can
reduce our import bill.
We are aware that as a small country in the Caribbean we are
susceptible to many of the dangers that have beset some of the other countries.
We are constantly looking at soil erosion, for instance. We are very diligent
when it comes to the pollution of our waters and things like that. We need to
sustain the marine life around our coastal waters. As far as the cultural aspect
is concerned, we have tried to diversify as much as possible. We are very keen
on festivals: the Oistins Festival, the Holetown Festival, for instance. The
Crop Over Festival in July has now become the most spectacular, perhaps, in the
Caribbean with the exception of Trinidads Carnival. And I think this is
actually showing in our visitor arrivals in July. It has become our best month
in terms of arrivals. So that cultural tourism, as we call it, is a very
important aspect of our development and we are doing all within our power to
· How confident are you of making tourism in Barbados a
- I think one has to look back at our history. In Barbados 30
years ago or so, we were a summer-winter destination. The affluent would come
here, they would come for long stays, they would come for three or four months,
and people working in the hotel industry would obviously work in the winter
months and probably look for another job in the summer because hotels will
close. Now, when we had the seasonality problem about three years ago, we
decided to have it alleviated simply by having non-scheduled flights out of,
particularly England, and indeed Europe. Our programme really is one of steady
growth, not dramatic one. We just want to have a sustained, moderate growth in
Barbados, on year-round tourism. That is our goal, to make sure that our workers
in the hotel industry have sustained employment and to make sure that the
hoteliers are able to keep their heads above water throughout the year. It is no
longer a case of making enough money in the winter months to keep you going for
the rest of the year. What we need to do is to have a sort of summer programme
which would allow hoteliers to employ as many people as possible, to keep their
doors open and then find that the gravy, as it were, comes in the winter months.
We fuse tourism with sports. We feel very strongly in this country that sports
will complement tourism and not compete with tourism. As a result of that
position we have encouraged many sporting groups to come to Barbados. You
see there has been a change in the behavioural pattern and wishes of
tourists. Younger people are travelling - people are travelling now at a tender
age and they want to do things that they do best while on holiday. And therefore
we have combined the leisure aspect of tourism with the sporting aspect, and the
result is that we have been able to have people in all sorts of sporting
activities, in cricket, football, netball, hockey, athletics, horse-racing,
cycling. This has allowed us to improve our infrastructure because there is no
point in us asking someone to come here if we do not have the facilities. For
instance, if we had the Cameroon football team (by the way we are very impressed
with their performance at the World Cup), we would want to put them in a good
stadium to play football. If we are getting cricketers, we will want them to
play in happy and congenial surroundings. So, really, it was very important that
we in Barbados improve our infrastructure and that is what weve done, and
this is something for the sports-tourism fusion. It is about the only fusion
that I know of in the Caribbean, but I think that more and more, other Caribbean
countries will follow that trend.
We are also very receptive to cruise ships, simply because we
wish to think that when someone comes here for a day on a ship and falls in love
with the country, he is a potential long stay visitor in the future. We would
not have to spend a lot of much needed dollars luring him or her. You know, we
feel that the word of mouth is one that has done well in the past. But we feel
that one has to do a lot more than that in the future. So we encourage our
cruise ship passengers, who are only here for a few hours, to come for longer
stays in the future.
I am cognisant of the fact that the time has come for us to look
towards exchange of visits with Africa. I mean Ive had one or two
ministers from Senegal and Sierra Leone. They have been here, they are our
friends and weve all been very happy. I think the time is now ripe, indeed
very necessary for us to look at this. When one considers the European market in
1992, when that comes to fruition, I think that, we in the Caribbean, of
necessity, would be stupid not to really escalate our efforts to turn to our
brothers in Africa. And that is one of my prime moves within the next two or
three years. That is one of the things I really want to do.
· I note you say that Barbadians already have a lot of
investment in tourism in Barbados - 80 % of small hotels, quite considerable.
Are foreign investors welcome here?
- Oh yes. We welcome foreign investors, weve had investors
coming here to develop luxury hotels and sporting facilities such as golf
courses, and marinas and conventions. You see, our position is simply this: we
do not believe that the sea, sand, and surf are the only attributes in going
into the 21st century. We believe that we must have goal policy initiatives
which will improve our competitive edge and help in our development. So joint
ventures with local capital are welcome. We have the Hotel Aids Act which offers
incentives to local or foreign investors and this Act just provides for
duty-free imports of building materials, furniture, fittings, equipment for new
hotel projects and permission to operate on a ten-year tax holiday. These are
incentives that we give investors coming to Barbados in the hotel industry, and
we are hoping that by so doing we will continue to attract investors.