Two things got me thinking last week. Firstly, I was at a meeting at which some government programs were being discussed. Someone make the point that hoteliers were having problems recruiting workers because social programs such as CEPEP were attracting available workers. Secondly, I have been following some online discussions about the tourism industry and its apparent challenges. For me, the common thread between these two incidents was the lack of hard data to support views. Not that the view or criticisms were right or wrong but just that there is an absence of hard data in the public domain to guide discussions.
When one compares local discussions around the energy or manufacturing sectors for example, and compares it to what obtains in tourism, the difference is stark. The head of a tourism stakeholder group has often said that tourism is treated like the ‘outside’ child. I do not think that I have found anyone who really disagrees with her. Discussions around our tourist industry too often start with “I feel” or “I hear”. Not that there is anything wrong with that but in shaping and strategizing the development of a multibillion dollar industry, more debate needs to be rooted in some hard facts as well.
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Most of us, when we hear some news about our tourism decision-makers, it is all too often connected with some foreign trip. Maybe it is the bias of the media who thinks it sounds glamorous? Who knows! To me it seems a somewhat natural result given the absence of any other coherent strategy documents or solid positive results coming from sector decision makers. A popular online commentator has gone so far as to prepare a list. In an email called “keep the tourism fire burning 2”, Mr Maundy reminds readers of 2010 tourism decision-maker trips to China, Japan, India, London, New York, Barbados and Panama. He then challenges decision makers to “show the benefits or return on investment” for these international trips.
The average onlooker would be forgiven for concluding that tourism is not realizing its true potential in contributing to our treasury. I have often been asked my opinion. To those who know me, my response is predictable – last September the business section of another newspaper clearly demonstrated that starting from 1995, visitor arrivals to Trinidad and Tobago showed an upward trend, peaked in 2005 and since then, have been in decline. With these numbers, we immediately dismiss one myth. Our tourism decline predates the current global economic turmoil. The cause of the decline in our arrivals is not simply due to external forces.
In terms of the overseas trips, I honestly cannot comment because there continues to be a lack of information in the public domain that convincingly links efforts to results. I admire Barbados’ approach to this industry. I was there a couple weeks ago for business, and I will probably return next week. In January 2011, the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA) had a full page newspaper column reporting to readers what they did in 2010, how much they spent and how many arrivals they did. I recently mentioned a March 2011 Barbados Advocate article in which the BTA explains to readers how much money they got for 2011, what activities they intend to spend it on, and how many extra arrivals this activity will yield to the end of 2011.
This seems so basic. Set targets, set activities to achieve it and learn from any shortfalls. Most importantly, we need to do this in a transparent way. To raise the level of debate in tourism, stakeholders must play a role in shaping the strategy. At a recent tourism symposium hosted by the San Juan Business Association, I understand that Professor Kapil Kumar was present. A visiting Chair in Contemporary Indian Studies at the University of the West Indies, the Professor has 24 years experience lecturing in tourism. In an online forum, Raul Bermudez who was at the symposium, explained that Professor Kumar advocated the use of cricket to promote Trinidad and Tobago in India. Decision makers should be unafraid to tap into the collective wisdom of stakeholders to create a strategic plan against which their performance can be measured. Now is the time to get together and agree the best way forward for this sector.
My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. As always, I end by saying that despite our challenges, we are so blessed to live in this beautiful land. Let us continue to have the audacity of hope in the future of our beloved country.
Derren is a travel and tourism consultant. The views and opinions expressed here are solely the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of any company or institution affiliated with the writer.