By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The “true testament” of The Bahamas’ record tourism growth will be whether it translates into increased economic impact and jobs, a top Chamber of Commerce executive said yesterday.
Jeffrey Beckles, its chief executive, praised the Ministry of Tourism and all private sector players for generating “double digit” stopover arrivals growth but argued that the real benchmark is whether this delivers real benefits that are felt by all providers and workers.
He told Tribune Business that The Bahamas’ visitor satisfaction levels and guest experiences needed to match the increased arrivals numbers if the recent growth is to become truly “sustainable”.
Arguing that this was where “the rubber meets the road”, Mr Beckles said he was also looking to see whether the recent improvement resulted in increased per capita tourist spending.
Noting that there seemed to be a disconnect between growth in The Bahamas’ number one industry and the increase in the national unemployment rate, revealed in the last Labour Force Survey in 2018, the chamber chief executive voiced hope that the upcoming May report would reverse this outcome.
“In a word, if I had to describe it, it would be phenomenal that we’ve achieved this success on so many fronts,” Mr Beckles told Tribune Business of the data unveiled by the Ministry of Tourism for 2018 and 2019 to-date.
“Record arrivals, record revenues. We’re also very happy that the Family Islands are also experiencing some of this growth, which is a good thing, because often this is Nassau-centric and Nassau/Paradise Island enjoys the majority of the benefits.
“The other thing, while we bear all this good news, is that people are working full weeks in the hotels. We’ve spoken to some people who are working six-day weeks. It’s good news for tourism; kudos to the hotels, the transportation providers and restaurants and all who are contributing to these positive results,” he continued.
“But, by the same token, it’s hoped that when the next visitor satisfaction report’s results are released they parallel the growth. If they’re going the other way, it’s not going to be sustained.”
Mr Beckles urged the tourism industry, and wider Bahamas, to exploit the sector’s current growth momentum - driven by Baha Mar’s full opening, US economic growth and revived consumer confidence - to ensure all aspects of its product reach and maintain high standards.
The most critical element, he suggested, was to ensure The Bahamas delivered “value for money” and more by delivering - even exceeding - the guest experience persons had anticipated when coming to these islands.
This, Mr Beckles added, required The Bahamas to make sure “service levels are consistently high” and “people are encouraged to be their best”. He told Tribune Business: “Having growth is great, but the real test of that growth is: Are we serving and delivering the customer experience to the point where they want to come back?
“That’s where the rubber meets the road, and where the true testament is. That being said, we want to see a visitor satisfaction rating and make sure that matches growth. While room revenues and air arrivals are up, how is that transposing into average spend?
“We’re hoping that when those numbers come put they parallel. The trues measure of the economic impact is how far down those dollars are being felt. We had the recent increase in unemployment numbers that did not seem to pan out based on the celebrated growth,” Mr Beckles added.
“When the next report comes out in the second quarter we want to see some connection between the celebrated growth and reduction in unemployment. The numbers are great, fantastic, kudos to them all, but let’s flesh this out properly, flesh this growth through, to see how increased arrivals translate into increased spending beyond record arrivals and airlines celebrating high load factors.
“How is this being felt throughout the industry, and are people feeling it. Small businesses, hair braiders, taxi drivers and all those artisans: Are they being exposed to these visitors so that they spend more of their dollars with them? That’s the kind of measurement we’re encouraging people to look at.”
Mr Beckles said The Bahamas’ strong tourism showing also highlighted the need for this nation to become more data-driven and strategic, especially in discovering and analysing who its visitors were, where they were coming from and what they did while in this nation.
Through such profiles, he argued that The Bahamas “can engage them in other ways” to come back as repeat visitors. “Know the demographics, and know how much money they are spending in The Bahamas,” Mr Beckles explained, “so growth is felt across the board and not in one particular area.”
The Chamber chief’s comments came after Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, earlier this week said Bahamian tourism is “firing on all cylinders” with forward stopover bookings for the next three months some nine percent ahead of 2018 comparatives.
He revealed that forward booking indicators for April - which contains the Easter weekend - were up 15.6 percent year-over-year due to the timing of when the holiday fell.
Confirming that The Bahamas’ higher-spending air arrivals were meeting projected early increases, Mr D’Aguilar said the 2019 first quarter was maintaining the momentum generated by an “unprecedented” 2018 performance.
“Several key markets registered double digit growth,” he added. “In February, international arrivals increased by 11 percent year-over-year. The forward booking situation for the next three months, March to May is optimistic, with forward bookings running nine percent ahead for international arrivals. April, which is ahead by 15.6 percent, shows the most favourable outlook.”
The figures revealed yesterday indicate that The Bahamas’ tourism performance is broadly in line with the forecast given by Mr D’Aguilar in January, when he told Tribune Business that projected air arrivals would be up 16 percent for three of 2019’s first four months.
Ministry of Tourism data shows forward bookings over the next three months, the March to May 2019 period, are running nine percent ahead for international arrivals. Its data partner, Forward Keys, which tracks and reports inbound visitor data from key markets, reported that international arrivals to The Bahamas grew by 15 percent in January 2019 versus January 2018.