Former Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe.
By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
FORMER Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe revealed yesterday the Ministry of Tourism saved the government $3.5m in agency fees and commissions last year as he defended the capacity of the ministry’s in-house public relations team.
Reacting to reports that the ministry has re-engaged global PR firm Weber Shandwick, Mr Wilchcombe said it was unfortunate the Minnis administration would prefer to spend millions creating employment overseas.
He underscored that the cadre of young professionals at the Ministry of Tourism must not be overlooked or shunned.
Mr Wilchcombe said: “Bahamians have the capacity and have proven to be equal to the task of any professional in the tourism industry. We have been in the business for almost 55 years now. We must reduce our dependence on foreigners and give more responsibility to qualified Bahamians, black, white, FNM or PLP.”
He continued: “We should spare no efforts in getting the best of our young people engaged in the sustained growth and development of our number one industry. I dare say it is most unfortunate that we would prefer to spend millions creating employment overseas as opposed to spending even less in creating employment for qualified, creative and competent Bahamians to develop an enviable communications division that could only grow in the interest of the Bahamas.”
Weber Shandwick was dropped in 2013 by the former Progressive Liberal Party administration after an 18-year long run with the ministry.
The PR firm was reportedly re-engaged by the Ministry of Tourism in recent weeks; however, Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar declined comment yesterday.
Notwithstanding the savings, Mr Wilchcombe pointed to the numerous international accolades awarded during the last term as he recounted the Christie administration’s decision to sever ties with the global PR firm and instead utilise Bahamian talent. He noted that the relationship ended on good terms, and praised the firm as an industry leader.
“When we severed our relationship with Weber it was predicated on a vision to bring all components of communications, including public relations in house utilising qualified, competent and creative Bahamians to run the division,” Mr Wilchcombe said.
“In fact, the division was headed by Mia Weech Lange who was attached to Weber during my 2002-2007 tenure to become familiar with the operations of a major public relations agency. She and her team of young Bahamians represent the premium quality of Bahamian talent. Through their work the exposure of this country of multi-destinations sky rocketed.”
He continued: “Our team stood head and shoulders with all professionals in the industry. The acclaim of the Bahamas team was seen by the myriad of awards including winner of USA Today’s Readers’ Choice Award for Best Caribbean Celebration (Junkanoo) for two consecutive years; winner of the World Tourism Award for Leading Wedding Destination; winner of the Luxury Destination Award and numerous print awards.
“In 2016, the Bahamas was ranked in the top ten most searched destination globally by Expedia in its summer travel report showing a five per cent increase over the previous year. “In 2016 Bloomberg ranked the Bahamas the number one vacation spot for America’s wealthiest. Through the division’s initiative our culture was taken to the world through the famed Music Voyager 6 series - 30 minute episodes that won numerous global awards.”
Mr Wilchcombe noted the ministry’s plans to establish a fully equipped communications division with a digital platform headed by young Bahamian professional Andre Miller.
He added that the Ministry of Tourism’s communications team generated more than $600m worth of media exposure for the country during the December to May 2016 period.
The Weber Shandwick contract follows redundancies in the Ministry of Tourism’s Grand Bahama office earlier this month that affected 11 persons. In July, 12 persons were recalled to Nassau after the ministry amalgamated its Washington, DC, and Los Angeles offices with New York and Houston.
Mr D’Aguilar had previously said that move would save around $1 million a year.
Mr Wilchcombe previously defended his decision to increase the size of the ministry’s staff by 55 per cent during his 2012 -2017 term, telling Tribune Business the move was done within the ministry’s budgetary constraints.
Yesterday, he said the ministry had seen tremendous progress and was slowly filling its human capital needs through an extensive search for the “best and the brightest.”