By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Minister of Tourism yesterday blamed his predecessor for “locking up” precious marketing dollars, as data revealed that Grand Bahama attracted MORE stopover visitors 40 years ago.
Dionisio D’Aguilar told Tribune Business that the data illustrated the Bahamas’ “dilemma of tourism”, as stopover visitors to that island were almost 14 per cent lower in 2015 (pre-Hurricane) Matthew than they were in 1977.
Ministry of Tourism data, released by the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) and obtained by Tribune Business, reveals that Grand Bahama attracted some 286,280 stopover visitors in 1977, compared to 246,518 in 2015 and 212,609 in 2016. The last time the island exceeded those numbers in 2006, prior to the worldwide recession.
“The general data illustrates that for the last 20 years, by and large, the stopover numbers have not moved,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business. “That is the dilemma of tourism.
“We’ve focused on total visitor numbers to our detriment, and all growth has come from cruise ship passengers who spend 22 times’ less than a stopover visitor....It’s wrong just to look at the number of people coming to the destination. We have to stop looking at the numbers that come here, and start looking at the GDP effect they have.”
With Moody’s, the credit rating agency, estimating that tourism generates two-thirds of Bahamian economic output or GDP, the slow-to-minimal growth in this nation’s higher-yielding stopover visitors explains this nation’s relatively poor growth performance since the 2008-2009 recession.
The Bahamas’ total 1.482 million stopover visitors in 2016 was still 7.4 per cent below the record-setting 1.6 million attracted in 2006, the last year of major growth before the global downturn.
The data also reveals that total hotel rooms in the Bahamas had decreased by 9.6 per cent over the past decade, dropping from 16,340 in 2007 to just 14,804 last year.
Mr D’Aguilar expressed hope that Baha Mar’s 2,300 net room increase would start to reverse this trend, telling Tribune Business that the Ministry of Tourism was “putting our heads together” and focusing its strategy on how to grow land-based visitors at a much faster rate.
The data also backed his decision to focus the Ministry’s marketing dollars on digital, online media, and close the Los Angeles and Washington D.C offices by amalgamating them with Houston and New York, respectively.
The statistics revealed that 68 per cent of the Bahamas’ tourists in 2016 booked their vacations online, a figure consistent with the year before, while just 28 per cent used a travel agent - down from 30 per cent in 2015.
The Ministry of Tourism released 25 pre-election hires and other workers to free-up marketing dollars, and Mr D’Aguilar yesterday said he spent “half-a-day” discussing its online promotional strategy.
Arguing that its current $2 million electronic spend was woefully inadequate, he told Tribune Business: “We need to direct as many marketing dollars as possible to social media and digital campaigning.
“We’re speaking with Google, Expedia, looking at all sorts of different ways to improve our penetration online.”
Mr D’Aguilar added that the current marketing budget was “not enough”, and said: “We’re being constantly out-spent. Aruba is out-spending us three times’, and Jamaica is out-spending us by 40 per cent.
“Overall, the most effective is Aruba. They’re out-spending us significantly. We’ve just allocated too much of our tourism budget to overheads, salaries and offices, and we’re being comprehensively outspent in a competitive market.
“We need many more dollars to be spent on marketing. It’s very competitive, we have to be be competitive and go dollar for dollar with other Caribbean nations.”
Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business that much of the Ministry’s marketing budget was “fixed”, and he criticised his predecessor, Obie Wilchcombe, for locking it into sporting contracts “that I can’t do anything about”.
He added that Mr Wilchcombe had sought to attach the Bahamas’ brand name to sporting events and teams, such as the LPGA’s Pure Silk Classic golf tournament on Paradise Island and football teams, believing this would help to attract visitors.
Disagreeing with this approach, and linking the Ministry’s marketing dollars to it, Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business: “I’m locked in, and have to wait until these contracts expire to free up the money.
“It was his [Mr Wilchcombe’s] way to drive stopover visitors, but it was not as successful as we thought it would be in bringing them to this destination. I have to wait for these contracts to expire I can redistribute funding to digital, social media and bloggers.”
With an improved tourism performance critical to the economic growth Moody’s is seeking to justify an ‘investment grade’ rating for the Bahamas, Mr D’Aguilar conceded: “Tourism contributes two-thirds of the economy, and I feel the weight on my shoulders to get the tourism product growing.
“This is an enormous job. Two-thirds of the economy is riding on my shoulders, and I can’t afford a mistake right now. We’ve got to pull all the stops out, and be as creative, innovative and successful as we can.”