UPDATED: April 23, 2012
With all the talk of hotels failing and our tourism industry on the ropes, we revisit this article by BFP reader West Side Davie. If not tourism as our mainstay of economic health, then what?
by West Side Davie
The recent budget speech and the acknowledgement that our tourism mainstay is feeling the impact of the global financial troubles has again produced calls for the diversification of our economy. “Diversification” sounds so reasonable when talked about in general, but when you ask people for some suggestions their reply usually includes two standbys: “manufacturing” and “something other than tourism”.
Something “other than tourism”
Barbados has tried a few “other things” that haven’t worked out – including the fairly recent failed efforts to make our island the call center capital of the world and the “stem cell research” capital of the world. In the end we always seem to fall back on tourism, rum, financial services and the dangling hope that sugar will “rise again”. Nobody talks much about the fact that most of our rum is produced with imported molasses and most of our sugar industry field labour is imported as well.
Regardless of the assurances on the Invest Barbados website that we are an ideal secondary manufacturing location, it is acknowledged that Barbadian manufacturers must compete with those from other regional and world economies, whose wage costs and other overheads are usually much lower. Then there is that low-productivity problem that various Bajan governments and Ministers have attempted to address in the last 20 years – but I for one haven’t seen positive changes on a scale worth talking about.
Truthfully when it comes to manufacturing, nothing has been the same since Intel shut down its Barbados facility in 1986 and moved the majority of its North American and Caribbean operations to Asia. It is that Asian competition from China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and lately Vietnam that convinces me that we must not allow ourselves to develop false hopes about the possibility of a rebirth of manufacturing in Barbados.
The lesson from Royal Enfield Motorcycles
A friend sent me the above YouTube video of a decorative painter at India’s Royal Enfield Motorcycles. Watch and you’ll see an amazing performance by a Royal Enfield employee – BUT – if you replay the video a couple of times and look at the facility, the product and the employees in the background, you might come to the same conclusion that I did…
Barbados hasn’t a hope of competing in the manufacturing industries.
Where does that leave us? I think we have to determine what it is that we as individuals and as a nation do the best at. Then we have to fully devote ourselves to being the best we can be in those chosen economic mainstays – and unless someone else has any other ideas, I think that means tourism, rum and offshore financial and insurance services.
The next time that someone says “diversification” and “something other than tourism” when talking about the Bajan economy and planing for the future, please ask them to be more specific. If your friends are like mine (and like our MPs), I think you’ll find that we’re out of ideas and out of time for big changes.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be trying to put some other irons in the fire, but to let our tourism industry slide on the hopes of finding something else makes no sense.
In my opinion, we had better get back to doing our best at what we know best. Shore up the foundation before we start looking to build an extension on the home!