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TOURISM MATTERS: Puzzling BTA-US love affair

Adrian Loveridge

TOURISM MATTERS: Puzzling  BTA-US  love affair

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Frankly, I have never understood the seemingly illogical apportionment of the Barbados Tourism Authority’s (BTA) annual budget and the ways it has been spent across our principal tourism markets.
   The United States (US) stands out as a vivid example. In the five years 2003 to 2007, we welcomed 654 281 American long-stay visitors. For the same duration 2008 to 2012, that number (661 646) grew by a minuscule 7 365 persons or an increase of just 1.1 per cent, which barely represents an incremental annual average of 0.2 per cent.
During that same second period, our neighbour St Lucia recorded a 4.6 per cent improvement in US arrivals. That’s hardly spectacular, but with everyone throwing their hands in the air, while shouting APD (Air Passenger Duty), recession, global economic meltdown and all the other possible excuses, it is nothing to be ashamed of.
What continues to be puzzling is why we continue to spend the lion’s share of the BTA budget in the US market, without being able to achieve a meaningful return on our investment. More overseas offices, staff, airline subsidies, the legendary per diem and other expenses than any other major source but little or nothing to show for it!
 For instance, compare the exact same period with Canada, which grew by 35 per cent (87 339 extra arrivals) or an average of seven per cent per annum.
The imminent withdrawal of American Airlines on the New York route is just one part of the problem. Yes! Our policymakers are scrambling around trying to find alternative carriers to meet the loss of seats, but what exactly is the plan to fill them?
Is it time to consider closing the prime location Second Avenue New York office to save the considerable operating costs associated with it? The savings could then be spent on hard marketing to drive additional numbers and any displaced, but productive, staff redeployed.
Could everything then be centralized in Coral Gables, Florida, where American Airlines continues to operate direct flights from Miami to Barbados?
Also of concern must be the decision back in 2009, following a  four-month review, to award a Kansas-based advertising agency, then called MMG Worldwide, an US$8 million three year contract. Possibly, influencing the final choice was the company’s stated expertise in the travel and hospitality industries.
Clearly, at least in the US market, they have not been able to make a substantive difference, and surely that by itself must call for an urgent evaluation.
On reflection it might have been better to select a smaller more results-orientated agency, rather than a huge multi-location mission statement-driven entity, which clearly could not respond with the speed necessary to maximize on the many lost opportunities.
Of course, there may well be justifiable reasons behind this non-performance, which could include the financial challenges facing the BTA, but that makes it more critical that any promotions undertaken are entirely cost-effective.
For the first eight months of 2013, American stay-over arrivals look even more depressing, recording declines, in every single month, so far totalling 9 933 fewer visitors and already eradicating any microscopic gains made over the entire last five years.
It would appear yet again, the heady predictions of this year ending flat were woefully optimistic.