By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas must “significantly improve” its service quality to regain its position as a leading tourism destination, a Cabinet Minister conceding that it had “let slip” its top-notch reputation.
Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism, acknowledged that the Bahamas had “to work on the quality of our people” to regain its competitive edge, and ensure visitors received their desired experience and ‘value for money’.
Emphasising that all Bahamians had their part to play, Mr Wilchcombe said high service standards were necessary to match hotel product quality, especially with the $3.5 billion Baha Mar project - and other resort investments - set to open in 2015.
And, with the Bahamas perceived as a relatively high-priced destination, Mr Wilchcombe said top-class service was an essential component in creating a visitor experience to justify such expense.
“We have to improve the quality of our service if we’re going to be competitive,” Mr Wilchcombe told Tribune Business in a recent interview.
“We can’t have the high rates we have, and high costs we have, without the service to back it.”
Mr Wilchcombe said the responsibility for high-quality service did not rest solely with hotel workers, but extended to the likes of taxi drivers and straw braiders - any Bahamian who came into contact with tourists.
And he reiterated that the provision of such service did not stop with foreign visitors, but also extended to Bahamian customers.
“We have to work on the quality of our people. You will not have a great country unless you have great people with great soul, great spirit” Mr Wilchcombe told Tribune Business.
“Think what the country then becomes. We’re not going to get back our competitive edge, and are not going to be the best, if we don’t improve the quality of our service.”
“We cannot hide the facts, and the truth is our service has not been up to the quality we want. We cannot be a competitive nation unless we improve the quality of our service,” the Minister added.
“Tourism is the industry of choice. We have to improve significantly if we’re going to be a player among the big boys in the game.
“Everyone is going after the same dollar. We have a good reputation, have let it slip, but are working to get it back.”
The Minister of Tourism pointed to Cuba as one nation that sought to maximise the value of its people, having invested in ensuring all had access to high-quality education in preparation for the day when the US embargo would finally be lifted.
Mr Wilchcombe also responded after Tribune Business recently revealed the findings of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, which found the Bahamas lost the greatest tourism market share of any Caribbean nation in the post-recession years.
The working paper, ‘Revisiting tourism flows to the Caribbean: What is driving arrivals’, disclosed that the Bahamas’ share of the tourism market declined by 3 per cent between 2007 and 2013 - the biggest drop in the Caribbean.
Only Barbados suffered a drop of similar magnitude, with those countries enjoying the greatest increase in market share being the low cost destinations of Jamaica and Barbados - (almost 2 per cent and 4 per cent growth, respectively).
Tribune Business said at the time that the findings would provide further ammunition to those already concerned about the Bahamas’ economic competitiveness in tourism and a whole range of industries, as it adds to the perception this nation is a high cost destination that is pricing itself out of the market.
Mr Wilchcombe, though, preferred to focus on the positives and the future, suggesting the findings in the IMF report were in the past.
“We should be focusing on 2014, and where we are today, as opposed to yesterday,” he added. “The point is, and I feel very comfortable, is that the Bahamas is on the way back.
“Because we have the high rates, that creates great demand for the product, and that’s what we’re working on.
“We’re working on the positives, getting the airlift and the room inventory to increase, so we’ve got to improve the service and quality of the product.”
To support his assertion, Mr Wilchcombe pointed to both the $3.5 billion Baha Mar development and ongoing Albany expansion as evidence of the Bahamas’ progress in tourism.
Such moves, which will both expand the New Providence hotel room inventory and drive accompanying airlift, are designed to reverse the market share loss identified by the IMF.
Mr Wilchcombe added that other investments would see Warwick International Hotels re-open the former Paradise Island Harbour Resort, under its own brand, come mid-2015.
The Minister said the former Nassau Palm property on West Bay Street, originally intended to re-open as a Marriott Courtyard hotel but now likely to be a Holiday Inn brand, was also set to be ready by March 2015.
Mr Wilchcombe was spoke to Tribune Business after attending the re-birth of Eastern Airlines, a carrier that disappeared amid the recession and first Gulf War in the early 1990s.
He added that the Ministry of Tourism was set to start talks with Eastern Airlines on getting it back to service the Bahamas again.
“We’re expecting great things,” Mr Wilchcombe told Tribune Business, “but we cannot deliver if we don’t have the people. The people must be partners with us in delivering great quality service.”