A crisis that says we take urgent heed
“If you were planning on going to the Caribbean, maybe you should check first,” a story posted yesterday on the website of Public Radio International in the United States advised readers. The story then went on to pose a question that explained why.
“Are those beaches still stinky and covered in rotting seaweed?”
Next door in Canada, a story on the website of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that country’s leading public broadcaster, was simultaneously delivering the same bad news. It was warning potential travellers that “the picture-perfect beaches and turquoise waters that people expect on their visits to the Caribbean are increasingly being fouled by mats of decaying seaweed that attract biting sand fleas and smell like rotten eggs”.
In Britain, readers of The Independent, one of the country’s leading newspapers, encountered similar story on its website with the screaming headline Stinking Seaweed On Caribbean Beaches Causes Tourists To Cancel Holidays.
The headline was similar on the website of The Guardian, another leading British daily: Caribbean-Bound Tourists Cancel Holidays Due To Foul-Smelling Seaweed.
Within the past 48 hours, the Caribbean’s image as a pristine paradise has taken a severe beating from negative publicity in key North American and European markets, following the publication of a flurry of news articles in various media about the worst sargassum weed invasion to have hit the region. According to a search on Google, the story even got some play in China,
a lucrative new market the region is seeking to tap into.
What should be of particular concern to regional governments is the fact that quite a few stories made mention of holiday cancellations by persons planning to visit. This perception of potential visitors beginning to shun the Caribbean needs to be urgently and effectively addressed. If not, it can have a bandwagon effect that can undermine, for example, the latest predictions by our local tourism officials of a bumper 2015 winter tourist season.
From a public relations perspective, Caribbean tourism has a major crisis on its hands. And how is a crisis defined in such a context? As W.T. Coombs puts it in a 1999 book, a crisis is “a major occurrence with a potentially negative outcome affecting an organization, company or industry, as well as its publics, products, services or good name”. The sargassum weed invasion easily satisfies these criteria. A crisis always requires a swift response to contain the fallout.
Commenting in our July 3 Editorial as Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government were holding their annual summit here, we noted that the sargassum weed problem had become so serious that only a regional approach would suffice, as it offered the best hope for a solution. We said then that “the problem is so critical that it deserves attention at this level because of the serious economic and environmental implications for the region”.
Following the decline of sugar, bananas and other traditional exports in the last 25 years, tourism has become the region’s bread and butter industry and leading foreign exchange earner. In the case of Barbados, it is also the sector on which Government is looking to drive a sustained recovery of the economy that is emerging from an almost seven-year slump. The fortunes
of tourism, therefore, cannot be left to chance. Too much is at stake; not only for Barbados, but also the rest of the region.
What has transpired in the last 72 hours underscores the need for an urgent crisis management intervention. The Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), working with national tourism authorities, is best suited to lead this effort in the major markets. In the meantime, we also believe Caribbean tourism ministers, or better, heads of government, should meet in an emergency session to discuss the crisis facing regional tourism.
Ours is not the first call. Earlier this month, after the Tobago House of Assembly declared the sargassum weed invasion a natural disaster, Chief Secretary Orville London called for an emergency meeting of CARICOM heads.
Time is of the essence in fighting a crisis. If there is no swift response, people tend to believe and act on the information at their disposal. In Barbados’ case, it is important that our side of the story is told, and it is that the whole of Barbados is not overrun by sargassum weed.
Prospective visitors need to be reassured that they can still enjoy our fine beaches because those on the stretch from Browne’s Beach to the West Coast are as pristine as ever. Telling this to the world is our responsibility.