Awakening tourism

The 2012-13 winter tourist season starts tomorrow and people in the industry here are anxiously awaiting its outcome.

Much of Barbados’ economic success heading into the new year depends on the performance of the industry in a four-month period that is traditionally its most lucrative.

Hotels are ready to receive guests, although there is uncertainty about how many will arrive and where they will come from.

Fewer properties are opening this time around than the last winter season and fewer still have been able to carry out any form of improvement to their accommodation in the off season.

It is make or break time for the sector, which earns the island the most of its money.

Sounds familiar? That’s because it is. As that popular but tired saying goes: the more things change the more they remain the same.

While the government was changed, a new minister of tourism was installed, and the various sector groups and organisations, including the Barbados Tourism Authority and Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association, saw different faces at the helm, the reality facing Barbados at the end of another difficult year is that a bad tourism season will likely mean a bad 2013.

And while we very much want to share the optimism of Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy and others in the current administration that there will be the previously elusive turnaround this time, there are varying factors which suggest to us that the frowns will not turn to smiles overnight.

It has certainly been a rough year for Barbados tourism, with the demise of REDjet and closure of Almond Beach Village.

That said, Barbados is not as badly off tourism and economy wise as a number of competing destinations close to home and others farther away.

Our beaches are, for the most part well kept, crime against visitors is not a major problem, management of the country is adequate, even if not outstanding, and so far Barbados has not had to seek the assistance of an entity like the International Monetary Fund.

All of this points to a relatively stable society, and some would say economy, a factor which would give some comfort to most foreign vacationers.

Another positive, in our view, is that both Government and Opposition agree, and have said so publicly, that there is a need for reform of the tourism industry.

The Freundel Stuart administration recently publicised its much talked about White Paper On The Development Of Tourism In Barbados, the precursor to the promised tourism master plan.

In recent days the Opposition, through its leader Owen Arthur, has also outlined what it thinks are some of the immediate needs for the industry.

Both agree innovation is required, that the BTA needs to be restructured, that the island will not be able to compete with other destinations with deeper pockets and lower costs, and the sector remains and will continue for some time to be the island’s number one foreign exchange earner. Too little too late some might say?

We do not share the view that all hope is lost as far as a return to the glory days of healthy tourism arrivals and related hefty earnings, but if ever there was a wake-up call for the economic diversification the island has long needed, the past four years have rang loudly and clearly.

Such a transformation will not be fully successful in a year, perhaps not even in 10, but if there is one thing this year has taught us it is that we now have no choice but to act.

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