IN JUNE, we called in these columns for a major reassessment of the government’s tourism policy and promotion in the face of growing competition from our Caribbean rivals, including Cuba.
We were inspired to urge such action by the appointment of a new Minister of Tourism with a reputation for a vigorous and down-to-earth approach.
We were also encouraged by the Prime Minister’s welcome call in an address to the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association for diversification of the country’s tourism to cover more of our history and culture.
The tourism sector of the economy employs thousands of Bahamians and brings in much of the foreign exchange needed to import the goods and services on which we rely for our way of life.
As such, the government should provide appropriate official support to the sector. It follows that the work of the Ministry of Tourism – its objectives, priorities and staffing – should be under constant scrutiny. Its activities need to be reassessed regularly to enable it to keep up with the competition from other countries that are forever changing and developing their tourism product.
It appears that Mr D’Aguilar’s principal concerns are about visitor safety and the importance of increasing expenditure by tourists. Although our overall visitor levels are up, our level of spending is down so there is a need to attract more stopover visitors who will spend more money than cruise ship passengers.
In addition, as an indication of his willingness to consider fresh ideas and reform, he was reported to have told tourism stakeholders during an address last week that “a radically different approach to tourism development” was required.
The primary role of his ministry must be to promote The Bahamas as a desirable destination for visitors. It makes sense to re-engage the experienced global public relations agency which has already been successful in gaining extensive exposure for the country in sophisticated tourism markets like the USA and which has won international recognition for its work. As before, we hope that a Ministry of Tourism communications team will be able to work alongside them.
To assist them, one innovative and low-cost idea which may be worth considering would be to develop a small cadre of resident expatriates from European countries who might be willing to become involved. Based on their own first-hand experience of local life, they would be well positioned to help to explain – credibly and convincingly to tour operators and others in their country of origin – the merits of our nation as a leading tourist destination.
While fears about crime and the safety of our visitors are justified to some extent, the dangers should be kept in proportion. Travel advisories by foreign governments tend to be unnecessarily alarming about local conditions and can be misleading.
For example, description of the criminal threat level in New Providence as critical looks to be an exaggeration, as is the listing of The Bahamas on an international travel website as the sixth out of ten most dangerous places for unaccompanied women to visit.
Those of us who live here know that overall, apart from drugs or gang-related crime and domestic violence, the threat of serious lawlessness in the form of personal assault is low while crime generally in the Family Islands is relatively rare. People can walk down Bay Street without feeling threatened.
But, as in most countries, venturing out in the early hours of the morning would be unwise.
Mercifully, here at home we have so far escaped the scourge of terrorism whereas there is a real threat of continuing ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in major cities like London, Paris and Brussels.
We agree with the minister about fears of a major tragic event locally in whatever form that might take, but it is fair to say that the threat of a serious incident involving terrorism is much greater in European capitals than in the relative safety of New Providence.
An important issue that should be addressed is the low numbers of visitors from Europe compared to the USA and Canada from where most of the annual total of some six million come.
Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism was reported recently to be seeking to increase last year’s total of 210,000 visitors from the United Kingdom to his country which is marginally less than the number of British tourists who visit Barbados annually.
By comparison, a Google search reveals that the number of such visitors coming to The Bahamas is only about 30,000.
From what we hear about Britain, the general view seems to be that, while considered a high class and desirable destination, The Bahamas is too expensive and predominantly a playground for wealthy Americans rather than for the average Briton who prefers Jamaica and Barbados or the Dominican Republic.
With the burgeoning vacation home rental sector here, perhaps costs will come down and perceptions change. But we suggest that more attention should be given to this potentially lucrative UK market, particularly in relation to package tours.
After a nine-hour flight, visitors from Europe are likely to stay longer and spend more money than short-term stopover visitors from the US. Moreover, if the demand is created, the airlift will follow as airlines or charter companies look for new and profitable routes.
The quality and variety of our tourism product is of a high standard. In addition to the top of the range Ocean Club, Atlantis with its own famous brand name, and Baha Mar soon to come fully on stream, the country has so much to offer in the way of good hotels, varied facilities and myriad attractions for visitors.
What is surely needed now is to build on existing practice by developing a more imaginative and active approach to marketing – in particular, further afield in Europe rather than concentrating on North America.
We have a good story to tell about an interesting, safe and desirable destination providing an exceptional experience and increasingly good value for money, not just for the rich and famous but for all.
The aim must be for visitors to go away genuinely believing that it really is better in The Bahamas. But first the ministry needs to attract greater numbers of stopover visitors to our shores.