The Way Forward…
Special to Barbados Free Press
by R. Douglas Edmondson
While the talk of the day generally seems to be restructure or improve productivity in the tourism sector, I have seen no new ideas on how that is to be done. Government officials and the Tourist Authority keep talking about finishing the Four seasons or Beachlands project or about expanding the port facility which means the focus will continue to be on the high end market, the same old path that has already reached its potential, and is a dead end therefore. Last year the Barbados Free Press picked up my story of 22 February 2012 where I said Barbados is a paradise lost if Barbadians don’t wake up to the fact that a whole new vision needs to be developed for tourism in Barbados, and that the middle class market was the future of tourism. The ideas below are my attempt to show the way forward.
“The airline industry has shown that a dynamic or variable pricing strategy over time is the means to a higher load factor with fewer empty seats… Surely the same strategy needs to be applied to the accommodation market here in Barbados.”
Part One – Market to the Middle Class
On February 25th, 2013, Dr. Delisle Worrell, Governor of Central Bank of Barbados, gave a speech “Keep pace with the competition” stressing that the tourism sector should improve its productivity. In this speech, Dr. Delisle Worrell was quoted as saying “ So long as our prices are right we can sell to our full capacity” thus avoiding empty hotel rooms due to overpricing, or leaving tourist dollars in their pockets due to under pricing.
The idea that like the temperature of mama bear’s porridge, there is a price that is just right is erroneous. If the right price could be found, there wouldn’t be a 62 percent room occupancy rate over the year across the region, and the government entity NPHL wouldn’t be unhappy that the Hilton Hotel, a 4.5 star property, was depending too heavily on the lowest category room rate to fill its rooms. But the Hilton is correct for the management has obviously realized there are not enough rich persons, the so called one percent, to fill the rooms at over $300 US dollars per night in winter.
What has amazed me is that so many hoteliers or guest house operators in Barbados maintain fixed seasonal daily rates even in the face of empty rooms. It seems as if the idea of providing weekly or monthly discount rate for tourists who will commit to a longer stay is not thought necessary here. Yet the airline industry has shown that a dynamic or variable pricing strategy over time is the means to a higher load factor with fewer empty seats. In economy class, a first rate is set which captures all those willing to pay that rate, after the rate is discounted for a time to catch the next income segment willing to afford that rate, and after returned to the higher rate to catch late-comers, then the rate is discounted further to fill more seats and the process is repeated again as needed. Surely the same strategy needs to be applied to the accommodation market here in Barbados.
In my opinion the root of some of the difficulty in the tourism sector is that the government continues in the mistaken belief that because Barbados does not have capacity for mass tourism, it must focus on high-end tourism instead.
If this idea was valid, the focus should be on building multiple Port Ferdinands all along the coast for the yachts of the rich, and on ignoring cruise ships altogether. After all, cruise ships mainly appeal to the middle class who travel on limited budgets. The middle class while large in numbers, must always decide between a short high end vacation or a longer more modest one. In the so called mass market which is really the middle class market, the value of the all-inclusive air and hotel vacation package is that it lets the middle class tourist know his fixed cost, and allows him to properly plan how to spend the remaining part of his budget outside of his vacation resort.
Five hundred jobs at The Four Seasons Resort when it is completed, a resort aimed at the one percent rich, won’t put a significant dent in the unemployment in Barbados, nor will the building of multiple Four Seasons type resorts. Again, the Hilton has already realized that the one percent rich are not sufficient in number to make this strategy viable. But a focus on the middle class market because of their large numbers can, as long as there is a full range of accommodation– not just high end but mid range to modest with a product that gives the middle income tourist a reason to stay. I do not envisage large hotel resorts like in Cancun, but a myriad array of small to mid-size intimate hotels with one dozen to three dozen rooms woven into the community which collectively would employ thousands of workers.
It should be recognized that the rich with their need for privacy and security tend to stay within their gated communities only venturing out occasionally for golf, a polo match, a high end restaurant or a shopping trip to Limegrove Centre. Moreover, a condo owner in the likes of Port Saint Charles or the future Four Seasons resort may only be present one or two months per year so that there is no additional spending of money into the economy in their absence. On the other hand, the middle income tourist will take the bus, rent a car, buy groceries, explore the rum bars and restaurants, shop for tourist souvenirs, and visit the tourist attractions. The sheer volume and turnover of middle income tourists through the year will ensure a sound tourist sector provided there is enough moderate and modest accommodation, and a variety of tourist attractions to ensure there is a reason to stay and return again and again. But for this to happen, more attention needs to be given to upgrading the tourist product.
“A walk down Swan Street exposes the visitor to a lot of Chinese goods for sale…
With the limited scope and variety of attractions, the majority of day visitors conclude they have seen what Bridgetown has to offer and therefore see no reason to stay over or return.”
Part Two – Develop the Heritage Tourism Niche
With the focus on high end tourism, the government has failed to both preserve and brand Barbados as a heritage gem.
The National Trust House open-to-view program and the designation of the Garrison and the downtown as a UNESCO World Heritage site are embryonic start points and an indication only of the potential of the heritage niche.
What could be done with the Garrison.? One only has to look at how the old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, Canada is operated for an idea. Students are hired and act the part of soldiers dressed in the 1860’s period uniforms. They serve as museum guides and explain daily life in the barracks and dining halls which are furnished with period furniture and utensils. As a company of soldiers up to a hundred in strength, they demonstrate marching manoeuvres employed on the battlefield, demonstrate musketry drills and firing, and the drills and the firing of cannon. Of course, changing of the guard and sunset flag lowering ceremonies accompanied by military band and drum also form part of the display.
So the Garrison too could be turned into a living museum. The Zoave changing of the noon guard I watched last year is the mere seed of what could be accomplished. But to turn the Garrison into a living museum, a holistic approach needs to be taken and the scale of the enterprise dramatically increased in size to turn the Garrison into a world class tourist attraction illustrating Barbados’ place in the history of the British Empire. If this vision is achieved, the adjoining George Washington and Barbados Museum would be guaranteed greater attendance and support as a spin -off of the Garrison project.
In respect to the downtown, a cruise ship visitor walking down Broad Street sees expensive diamonds or emeralds marketed as duty free, T- shirts and other souvenir bric-a-brac and the mandatory rum for sale. A walk down Swan Street exposes the visitor to a lot of Chinese goods for sale. After passing Parliament and crossing the Careenage, the visitor comes to the Independence Arch and the Waterfront Café. With the limited scope and variety of attractions, the majority of day visitors conclude they have seen what Bridgetown has to offer and therefore see no reason to stay over or return. Isolated projects like the restoration of the Jewish Synagogue with its museum or George Washington House do little to enhance Barbados attractions precisely because these projects are done in isolation and not as part of a greater whole.
By that I mean a holistic approach needs to be taken so that an entire area of the downtown needs to be restored and repositioned as a tourist attraction. To provide an idea of what might be done, I will tell you about my city, Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Below Parliament Hill, which is itself a tourist attraction with the daily tours of the Houses of Parliament, is an area known as Lower Town. There is a farmers’ market, but the small businesses there had fallen into decline or closed during the 1960s on account of the building of shopping malls on the fringes of the city that provided free parking and one stop shopping with their huge variety of stores.
So a revitalization plan for Lower Town was undertaken with two main components. The first component was the establishment of hotels in or on the fringe of Lower Town to provide accommodation for the tourists wanting to see their capital city. As a result secondary businesses like restaurants, pubs, pastry shops, art galleries, souvenir and craft stores, night clubs and more sprang up in Lower Town to cater to tourist needs. The second component was the construction of new buildings or the conversion of old buildings to either office use or residential apartment use. The presence of permanent residents in the area and office workers from outside the area ensured that there was a permanent customer base for businesses in Lower Town. As a result secondary businesses like grocery or clothing and other stores sprang up to meet the daily needs of residents living there. The blended mix of tourist, resident and outside office worker restored the vitality of the area and brought about the start up of a wide variety of businesses that a tourist could browse and explore.
In similar manner I envisage the transformation of downtown Bridgetown from Cheapside to St Michael’s and across the Careenage to the Empire Theatre. I see old warehouses on Cavan Lane or business buildings from Tudor to Roebuck Streets being converted into rental or condo apartments for residents and small hotels for tourists. I see the old wooden balconies and historic building being repaired. I see the creation of small shady courtyards being opened up by the removal of old buildings of no architectural value to create intimate dining or shopping spaces. With people living and working in the area and tourists staying in the web of small intimate hotels, I envisage a vibrant area with a wide variety of offerings and an ambiance that is so attractive that a day visitor from a cruise ship will want to come back and stay and explore Bridgetown and Barbados. I see large numbers of business and employment opportunities if a holistic approach is taken to transforming the downtown into a concentrated area of tourism attractions and working and living space.
Development of the heritage market on an area basis would have broad appeal to the middle class income tourist.
“Too many day visitors from the cruise ships spend a day at the beach or visit Bathsheba and think to themselves, Barbados, been there, done that, I have seen what Barbados has to offer, no need to stay over or return.”
Part Three –Develop Eco-niche land based activities
In the marketing of Barbados, luxury accommodation, shopping, and leisure time at the beautiful beaches or sport seem to be emphasized, while eco-tourism plays third fiddle at best. The government approach has been a mixture of neglect and missed recognition of the potential in marketing Barbados as an eco-paradise. How else can you explain the failure to create a national park of Graeme Hall mangrove swamp, or even a private -public partnership? The ocean access to the swamp has not been dredged and the sluice gate repaired so the swamp is cut off from the interchange of waters which keeps the mangrove swamp healthy.
The National Trust walks are embryonic of what could be done to create a national trail system through the various micro-climates represented by savannah, gully, forest or seaside. Self-guided trails with paths marked, surfaces smoothed, steps and hand rails constructed for safety at dangerous points and a national trail map to the various walks need to be created.
There are a number of land based attractions now. On my visits to Welchman Hall Gully and Andromeda gardens, I observed that as plants died and were replaced, the labelling was not updated so that the educational value of handouts was denigrated. The lack of caring and complacency applies to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve as well. The area in the Reserve just below the ticket office has a number of brick paths between a number of dry cement water channels and ponds that haven’t functioned for years. So this area below the tree canopy has been left basically barren of plants and animals for years. No thought has been given to taking up some of the brick and cement or opening up the tree canopy so light can allow plant and animal life to flourish again. Complacency begets a modus operandi that appears to be, if it doesn’t work, don’t fix it or change it to something that does work.
There are a number of enterprises like the Wildlife Reserve, Welchman Hall Gully, Flower Forest, Hunte’s Garden, the Andromeda Gardens and Orchid World that operate in isolation from one another. No thought seems to have been given to linking them and marketing them together. For short stay and long stay visitors a passport ticket could be sold allowing the tourist to visit all attractions, or a half price passport ticket allowing the tourist to visit any three of the six attractions.
To improve the product, all current eco-attractions need to be properly maintained and upgraded and new ones developed in order to give visitors a reason to stay in Barbados. And these land based attractions need to be marketed as a whole in a prominent way. My point is Barbados could be branded as an eco-paradise, a marketing strategy poorly and inadequately developed up till now. At present, too many day visitors from the cruise ships spend a day at the beach or visit Bathsheba and think to themselves, Barbados, been there, done that, I have seen what Barbados has to offer, no need to stay over or return.
“There is a large middle class market hungry for contact with the natural world not provided for by their city lives.”
Part Four — Develop Eco-tourism niche water based activities
In terms of ocean activities, the marketing done by the Tourist Authority doesn’t seem to be much more than come and enjoy our beautiful beaches and friendly people, or swim with the turtles. At present, there are many businesses offering water based activities operating in isolation and for whom there is no coordinated marketing plan in respect to eco-tourism. While some dive companies are serious about providing genuine experiences in respect to marine reef life, some catamaran companies that offer swim with the turtle experiences are little more than lunch and rum parties to soca music with no genuine eco-tourist interest at all.
The government of Barbados doesn’t seem to be that serious about eco-tourism either because I have in the past ten years seen fishing in the Folkstone Marine Park, the designated protected area of the ship wrecks in Carlisle Bay, and the unprotected Rockley Beach breakwater or reef which should be protected as an eco-tourism site for snorkelers. There should be real protected areas, not the lip-service given now for two reasons. First, there are potentially more tourist dollars to be had by protecting reef fish for eco-tourism than in harvesting fish for local consumption. Second, because of the easterly location of Barbados and the flow of ocean currents, there are not a lot of reef fish larva arriving from afar so that Barbados is more dependent on reef fish populations being regenerated locally from within the area. An enforced protected area would ensure the regeneration of fish populations for both the marine reserve area and for the areas that are fished outside of the reserve area as well.
The ability to protect marine life is not simply a matter of money, for Belize, a poor country, has turned its reef system into a protected area that is enforced. Belize unlike Barbados has realized there is a large middle class market hungry for contact with the natural world not provided for by their city lives.
The NCC is supposed to manage the beaches in support of water based activities whether leisure, sport or eco. But when I have visited the NCC managed parks like Folkstone, Brown’s Beach and Rockley, I have seen showers or toilets not in working order. Moreover, bench seats or picnic benches are in need of paint or repair or repositioning. It feels as if the grounds cleaners have a clause in their contract that says they do not have to pick up old beer bottles tops or tiny fragments of broken glass along with the paper, plastic or styrofoam litter.
The other day at Worthing beach I showered off the salt water and sand but was then told sharply by the washroom attendant I could not enter or use the toilet before I had dried off. Sometimes it feels like the washroom cleaning staff are more concerned about minimizing their cleaning work than in providing service to the public. I do understand that some individuals whether Bajan or tourist can be thoughtless in bringing sand into the washroom, and need to be politely reminded. But by way of comparison, many shopping malls at home have their staff check the washroom condition on the hour, and clean up immediately where needed. But here the outdoor shower stalls themselves don’t seem to be cleaned more than once a day if at all for I have seen the shower floor coated in sand or litter that has blown in by wind. Both the condition of public park facilities and attitudes of many NCC staff are substandard and a disgrace, and in dire need of improvement if Barbados wants to be considered a most desirable tourist destination.
When I reflect on some of the NCC staff attitudes and the Alexandra School situation or the LIME lay-offs, I think the unions here in “Little England” are like those in England before Margaret Thatcher trimmed union feathers and restructured the British economy.
It was sad to see the demise of Ocean Park because it was of sound educational value for those who are not able to swim, snorkel or dive to enjoy some of what can be seen of the underwater world. It was unfortunate that a public-private partnership to save it wasn’t made. But the local customer base was inadequate to keep it open and the potential revenue producing middle income tourist market was and is not being targeted as the high end tourist market is favoured.
At the end of the day, it is essential that government, businesses and individuals take preservation of the underwater life seriously so Barbados becomes known for the preservation of its reefs, and can market this eco-brand product to the world. And it is essential that the public beaches be maintained at a high standard in support of eco, leisure and sport tourism on the water.
“Why should the Caribbee or Sandy Bay hotels on the south coast or the Kings Beach Hotel on the west coast, as examples, be allowed to stand derelict or empty for years?”
Part Five — Future Tourist Property development
A few years ago while walking along some streets with very modest wooden homes, I noticed more than one home with an automobile that was no longer working. It appeared that the car had been run until it would no longer go so that its role was now to sit outside the house with a flat tire. To me it is quite astonishing that someone would buy an expensive car without thinking about the regular maintenance and repair costs needed to keep it roadworthy or without the financial means to keep it roadworthy. But then I began to notice the same lack maintenance to houses, hotels and other businesses. I wondered why a business owner would milk his property dry giving no thought to the businesses sustainability? But then I noticed even the government has allowed some of their buildings to fall into a ruined state. It became obvious to me that the way of thinking behind such behaviour explained why parts of Bridgetown have such an aura of decay. There needs to be a dramatic change in attitude and behaviour by many of the people in Barbados if the country is to upgrade its product image in order to become competitive. Here in Barbados it appears as if there are islands of excellently run businesses or resorts managed by forward thinking entrepreneurs in a sea of mediocrity or complacency in terms of maintenance standards or work efficiency.
Recently, I saw in the newspaper a list of owners and their derelict homes which needed to be taken down and removed with the proviso that if action was not taken, the government would undertake to have it done, and the owners would be charged the expense incurred. I wondered if this rule should be applied to or why this rule has hasn’t been applied to derelict hotels as well? After all, why should the Caribbee or Sandy Bay hotels on the south coast or the Kings Beach Hotel on the west coast, as examples, be allowed to stand derelict or empty for years?
Hotels like other businesses that collect taxes on behalf of the government but don’t forward them to the government are in my opinion engaging in theft of monies due to the people of Barbados. Legislation should be enacted so that there are options in the type of penalties that can be applied. If a hotel does not have the money to pay a fine for not having forwarded the hotel tax, then the option to apply a penalty in terms the equivalent value in land should be available. A penalty levied in the form of land along the beach front would help to create hotel properties that are set back from the beach by a strip of land at least 10 metres in width so that there is room for boardwalks and shrubs and shade trees along the entire coastline.
And for property owners who fall into arrears and either cannot make payment or refuse payment of their annual property tax, the penalty of expropriation should be an option available to the government if it isn’t already. This legal process would begin to restructure the beaches and adjacent coastline for all Barbadians and tourists, ending the exclusive use of so much coastline by so few. At present the ratio of public open beach area to hotel resort and private property area is much too small. These proposals which would allow the creation of more public beach areas may appear extreme, but they are no more extreme than the loss of coastline for public use that has been permitted over the years, the west coast. being a prime example.
In terms of new resort development, no developments should be permitted on the seaward side where roads run close to the water. And where the coast road is distant from the ocean leaving a wide space for development, the new resort should be set back at least 10 metres from the beach again allowing room for boardwalks and shade trees and beautifying shrubbery. Restructuring the tourist industry should not just be given lip service. The proposals I have made above would ensure a rebalancing so that private property rights would no longer trump the common rights of the people to enjoy their own natural heritage.
In this five part article, I have tried to show the potential of branding Barbados as an eco and heritage tourism paradise. It is not so much the generation of more air lift from different countries that is needed, but a holistic development and upgrading of the tourist product in the areas outlined which can draw in more tourists thus making the tourism sector more productive. As a tourist in my tenth yearly visit, my hope is that a discussion of these ideas will provide a stimulus to Barbadians to begin thinking seriously about how to reposition Barbados in the tourism market. Hopefully new ideas of where Barbados may go will arise.
R. Douglas Edmondson