|The Courier N° 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)|
|Barbados: Basking in the economic sunshine|
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 destinations.
· 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 improve it.
· How confident are you of making tourism in Barbados a year-round industry?
- 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.
Interview by A.O.