CONVENTIONAL WISDOM, often defined as a set of ideas or explanations embraced by the public or by gurus of a particular field is seldom wrong, right?
Wrong! After all, much has changed in the world of ideas since the late John Kenneth Galbraith; a major global economic voice of the past half century popularised the term conventional wisdom in his 1958 landmark work, The Affluent Society, in order to explain the widespread resistance to new economic ideas.
One such bit of conventional wisdom which once held that China must be assessed through the prism of left versus right, especially in global economic matters, has been proven inaccurate. Another was that China was too large and populous to view small Caribbean, African and Latin American countries as serious as important economic partners. That, too, was shown to be away off the mark.
Dr Chelston Brathwaite, Barbados’ Ambassador to China, wants another bit of conventional wisdom about China to be proven wrong. It is that when it comes to his country securing a profitable slice of China’s vast travel market.
And he used the recent establishment of visa-free access to Barbados and China by holders of the two countries’ passports as an example of actions that can pave the way for Barbados to achieve its Chinese tourism goal.
The agreement, he said, “intensifies our (China and Barbados) relations in seeking to facilitate greater travel, trade and technical cooperation”.
As he explained it, the “visa waiver policy” can be “seen as one of the first steps in the plan to attract Chinese tourists to Barbados”.
In a telephone interview from his office in Beijing, the Ambassador told BARBADOS BUSINESS AUTHORITY that yes, there are some hard facts that must be faced to get the ball rolling. But no, they are not insurmountable challenges that a sustained information, marketing and aviation campaign can’t overcome.
“The bottom line is that China is open to promoting tourism with countries of Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Brathwaite. “Therefore our visa policy fits squarely within the China orientation for cooperation with Latin America and the Caribbean. The question has always been that, okay, Barbados is far away and there are no direct flights between the two countries. But we have seen over the last ten years significant growth in Chinese tourism, not only in terms of countries in Southeast Asia and places near to China but as far away as Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, western Canada, and Australia.”
That effort was underscored by the fact that more than 100 million Chinese now take every year to planes, ocean liners, trains and other forms of commercial transport to see the world as tourists, business executives, and cultural adventurers.
“China has been a bit of a closed society for many years and now it has opened up and the Chinese are, in my view, hungry for adventure, new experiences and new realities,” was the way Brathwaite put it.
With a population of 1.3 billion, a multitrillion-dollar economy that is now the world’s second largest after the United States China is expected to record a six per cent rate of expansion in its gross domestic product this year.
There has been significant growth in the “movement of people” from China,” Brathwaite pointed out. “We see the Chinese in many places in search of adventure. When it comes to Barbados and China, there are no direct flights and people see it as a deterrent. But if we look at what other countries are doing and the initiatives that are being made we would recognise that some states” have overcome the challenge of distance.
For instance, a flight from Beijing to Cuba goes through Canada, triggering a booming business in Chinese travel to the Spanish-speaking Caribbean destination. Direct flights have also been started linking China with Ethiopia and the Maldives.
“Over a million Chinese tourists have been going to the Maldives,” a lower middle-income south Asian nation of about 306 000 people, the diplomat added. “The point I am making is that we in the Caribbean can organise multicultural destination into the tourism product where Chinese can come to the region in search of a Caribbean experience. We can see a surge in Chinese tourism.”
He thinks the Barbados-based Caribbean Tourism Organisation was well placed to work with its member states to develop multidestination travel packages that would be tailor-made for the Chinese.
“That would be ideal,” Brathwaite. “If we can organise packages that would involve Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, The Bahamas and so on I think that would be attractive to the Chinese who are interested in a Caribbean experience. It would be a very attractive package.”
But what the lack of knowledge in China about Barbados and its neighbours?
When he arrived in Beijing as his birthplace’s top diplomat there, Brathwaite recalled he was frequently asked if Barbados was in Africa or how come black people were in that part of the world?
“I had to give them a bit of history about slavery and the movement of black people from Africa to the Caribbean. I find that the Chinese are very willing to learn. They understand their own history and they are eager to learn about the history of other people,” Brathwaite said.
“I would say there are two things that excite Chinese: history and culture. They are interested in culture, history, architecture and the customs of other peoples.”
A sustained marketing and information campaign in China can narrow if not eliminate the knowledge gap altogether.
As the world’s largest tourist market for international tours, it would be worth the effort. After all, more than 100 million Chinese travelled the world in 2015, spending more than US$120 billion.
“It would suggest to me that while cost may be an issue for some it wouldn’t be an issue for a large number of people who travel around the world,” said Brathwaite.
As the ambassador sees it, an essential step for Barbados would be assigning a Ministry of tourism representative in China to market the island and work with tour operators and others on the package tours.
“It’s a large market with considerable interest in other people and in foreign travel and we should move to tap into it,” Brathwaite insisted.