Jean Holder –– scholar, diplomat, pioneer
Dr Jean Holder is well known throughout the region for his pioneering work in tourism and diplomacy. However, many may not know the critical role he played in Barbados’ Independence story.
His part in the birth of this nation began prior to 1966, after the Barbados Scholar left Oxford University in England, and was recruited into the diplomatic service to represent the newly formed West Indies Federation. After being trained in diplomacy, international law and political theory at the University of Toronto, Canada, he was attached to the British Foreign Service as a Third Secretary and sent to Oslo, Norway, where he said he attained “invaluable experience” learning the rudiments of the trade.
However, the illustrious career in the Foreign Service which Dr Holder saw in his future with the West Indies Federation was not to be. In 1961, Jamaica decided to leave the Federation, followed closely by Trinidad and Tobago.
“The whole thing began to collapse; Jamaica had a referendum in 1961 and decided that she would leave, followed by Trinidad . . . . The seven Eastern Caribbean countries plus Barbados found themselves struggling to survive,” he explained.
Dr Holder noted that the remaining countries “rescued the situation” by forming the Eastern Caribbean Commission which was based in Barbados, but had offices in London and Canada. He was posted as the “number two” in the office in London, and, in addition to looking after matters of trade and the relationship with the British Government, he also saw after the welfare of immigrants to England, including students from Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.
“There was a great deal to do. It was one of the most productive parts of my life because the students were based in every corner in London that you could think
of and you constantly had to visit them, deal with them and their problems . . . . That kept me extremely busy during the years at the Eastern Caribbean Commission,” he said.
It was while he was serving in London that the then Premier Errol Barrow decided to make Barbados an Independent nation. The Independence Conference that followed saw discussions taking place between officials
from Barbados and England in London at Lancaster House.
According to Dr Holder, there was a very intense conversation going on in Barbados at the time about the ability of Barbados to survive as an Independent nation, and word of negotiations from Britain was eagerly anticipated. He was given the task of keeping Barbadians and other Caribbean countries apprised of the situation.
He is one of three persons who participated in that conference alive today.
“I was, I thought, extremely fortunate to have been asked by Mr Barrow to be Press and publicity officer for the conference, and to attend the conference and to be responsible not only for briefing the British and West Indian Press, but also for drafting reports for him to approve to be released in the Caribbean and Barbados.
“Of course, the reports were received with great anticipation by Barbadians who were waiting to know what the outcome of the Independence Conference would be, and I can say it was a very turbulent affair in which Premier Barrow and the Colonial Secretary came to some serious words; but at the end of the day we were able to emerge from that exercise successfully and the British government agreed to Barbados’ Independence,” he reminisced.
Dr Holder went on to serve as First Secretary in the Barbados High Commission, which was established post-Independence, before returning to Barbados in 1968 to head the Economic and Policy Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was while working in the Foreign Service that Dr Holder was attracted to an advertisement for the creation of a region-wide research and development tourism organization. While readily admitting he had had no experience in the tourism industry, Dr Holder pointed out he was inexplicably drawn to the proposed organization which was intended to transform Caribbean tourism from being simply an activity driven by marketing, to being a developmental sector chartered mostly by research statistics and planning.
“I was looking for a change from the Foreign Service. I had been in the Foreign Service actively for 14 years and thought that perhaps I needed a change, and I felt I had the ability to get the job done . . . . I think that my 14 years in diplomacy had given me the skills to get persons to get things done.
“It was a job which had really nothing to do with tourism; it was about creating an agency, designing an agency, selecting the kind of economists and statisticians, people that were never associated with tourism prior,”
During his tenure as executive director at the Caribbean Tourism Research and Development Centre (CTRC), as it was called at the time, Dr Holder worked with a number of international agencies to source the funds necessary to finance the set-up and running of the organization. He counts one victory during that period as the amalgamation of the CTRC and the Caribbean Tourist Association (CTA). The latter, based in New York, was largely dominated by non-Barbadians, and focused only on the marketing aspect of tourism.
“I will not pretend that it was easy or that it didn’t meet with massive resistance, especially from the private sector, who were happy with the marketing focus and did not understand all the talk about development focus . . . ; but it was a battle fought and won, and in 1998, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) was created,” he stated.
Dr Holder spent 30 years in regional tourism, and, at the end of his tenure, the CTO had become the region’s major marketing tourism and development organization, with a membership of 34 Caribbean states, as well as several national, regional and international private sector travel and tourism agencies and companies.
With years of tourism experience under his belt, Dr Holder moved into the private sector to become the chairman of the regional-based carrier LIAT. While acknowledging that the airline could do better, he noted there were many challenges associated with the running of a commercial airline.
“You have, obviously, the cost factor, and the cost factor has been affected for many years by fuel costs . . . . LIAT has a very small fleet and it’s supposed to service 21 different countries . . . with very small markets separated by water every day, and only four countries support it financially.
“So, when you add the financial issues to what I call the operational issues, it’s very, very difficult to design policies for LIAT that work across the board. If you are serving 21 countries, you have to have some footprint on the ground in each of those countries. Planes are coming and going every day; that means you are likely to have a much larger staff than you would think necessary . . . ; so I’m just saying while LIAT can do better, and we are working every day to make sure that it does better, there are good reasons why it is so complex,” he explained.
In addition to working in tourism and the Foreign Service, Dr Holder has contributed significantly to the development of Barbados’ cultural landscape. He, along with a number of prominent Barbadian artists, formed the first National Independence Festival Of Creative Arts (NIFCA) Committee in 1973, when he was installed as chairman.
“I’ve looked back at NIFCA over the years and I believe that NIFCA is the most important developmental cultural activity in Barbados. It has all the ingredients necessary for not only inculcating skills, but setting standards and ensuring that year after year new generations continue to be involved in the arts,” the former chairman surmised.
Over the years, Dr Holder has served on several boards and received many honours for his contribution to the development of a number of sectors in Barbados. Some of his notable awards include the Barbados Government Lifetime Achievement Tourism Award; the Barbados Companion Of Honour (BCH); Member Of The Royal Victorian Order; and the CTO 50th Anniversary Award, presented to 50 persons adjudged by that organization as having made the greatest contribution to Caribbean tourism in the past 50 years.