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THE ISSUE: Product needs refreshing

Shawn Cumberbatch

THE ISSUE: Product needs refreshing

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Has Barbados lost its appeal as a leading tourist destination?

There are some individuals in Barbados and elsewhere who believe that Barbados’ tourism product has gotten stale.

They say the evidence of this includes the fact that the majority of visitors to the island are mature and many of them are repeat visitors. In other words, Barbados has been failing to attract a new generation of tourists.

Some also point out that Barbados’ long-stay arrivals have not grown significantly in the last ten years, although they concede that part of the reason is the protracted economic downturn and crippling global recession.

The closure of a number of hotels here and the existence of others which have not been refurbished in many years is another reason for the decline.

These and other issues have in some cases been confirmed, but generally highlighted, in a series of reports published by Government and private sector bodies, including the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) in recent years.

One example is the BHTA-sponsored A Study On The Competitive Tourism Environment Which Barbados Faces: Its Challenges And Solutions, which was released in 2009.

This research was conducted by Property Consultancy Services Inc. with contributions from Charles Tibbits and Judith Wilcox. A 186-page report was produced and included a number of recommendations.

The report said Barbados was a “mature and highly successful” tourist destination, but added “there is a feeling that Barbados’ tourism product does not operate at optimal efficiency”.

“In many areas Barbados’ tourism product has stood still. In the last ten years volume growth in tourism capacity and demand has grown only modestly. Targets set in 2001 for growth in room stock, cruise arrivals and long-stay arrivals have not been met, at a time when there has been significant growth in many of the other Caribbean territories. For example, an additional 100 000 rooms have been developed in the wider region since 1990,” it said.

The report’s authors said Barbados “needs a national tourism policy focused on development of new tourism products, the creation of a service centric economy and a commitment to excellence in all tourism endeavours”.

“The policy should inform national tourism strategic planning which should be focused on setting achievable targets for growth, driven by the necessary resources. Finally, there is a need for ‘buy-in’ at all levels of society, which can only be achieved by a continuous process of educational [public relations],” they said.

Tourism authorities were also advised to focus on several “key areas” including heritage and historical tourism, the quality of the shopping experience, sports tourism, health and wellness tourism, festivals and the use of technology in tourism.

Then came Government’s White Paper On The Development Of Tourism In Barbados, released in 2012. This document was to be the precursor to the Tourism Master Plan 2012-2021, which was never released.

The document said Barbados had “become a mature, tired product that is in urgent need of rejuvenation in order for it to compete effectively within the current highly competitive global marketplace”.

“The intense and rapidly increasing global competition is forcing Barbados to reconfigure its business model to deal with these new realities.

As a consequence, Barbados must now specifically seek to diversify its product offering, differentiate itself and effectively communicate its unique brand to the world. This function is more critical now due to the fact that the recovery of the struggling Barbados economy depends largely on the growth and success of the tourism industry.”

A major part of Government’s answer to these challenges was the creation of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., which replaced the Barbados Tourism Authority, and the Barbados Tourism Product Authority.

Giving some insight into this development while addressing a BHTA meeting back in March 2013, Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy said the product development entity would play a major role in assisting the island in the strategic development of its tourism product.

“There will be a focus on the visiting experience, and not just the attractions, but the whole experience from the time the tourist alights from the aircraft or the gangway at the seaport until the end of their stay. So the Product Authority can now deal with standards of service as opposed to these issues being buried in an authority that is more concerned with airlift and marketing considerations,” Sealy said.

While there is some way to go before all of the above concerns are addressed, the fact that Barbados has been able to attract the attention of some leading international brands, including Sandals, Wyndham and Hyatt, is an indication that officials have started to move in the right direction.