Tourism resilience: bouncing back after hurricanes
As I pen the draft of this article today on September 2, 2019, Hurricane Dorian is lashing Grand Bahama after catastrophically flattening Abaco. Here in Nassau, massive rain and wind have resulted in flooding throughout New Providence. Nonetheless, we Nassauvians must be the lucky ones to have escaped the wrath of the angry Dorian. Hats off to all of the individuals and groups – both private and public – under the coordination of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and other formal and informal groups, for doing a mammoth task in pre-, during and post-management of the hurricane’s impact on The Bahamas. Despite all of the challenges over the past many weeks (months) prior to the hurricane impact, with union, employers and government, not to mention the issue of load shedding to manage the current shortage in power, we as a nation have come together to bounce back from this day in history that we will always remember: a day when we experienced the most destructive hurricane that has ever lashed The Bahamas.
According to The Tribune (September 2, 2019), the government’s forecast of a record-breaking year for tourism performance in The Bahamas could be disrupted thanks to Hurricane Dorian. According to Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar, “Although the dangerous storm would have largely affected Grand Bahama and Abaco, visitors unfamiliar with The Bahamas’ geography will believe the entire country was devastated.” He further added that this is likely to affect projections, creating “enormous” concerns for the industry, with the fact that more than 20,000 cruise ship passengers who were expected to arrive in Nassau have been directed elsewhere due to the storm.
Hence, my focus of the discussion is on resilience. As a tourism nation, how can a small island destination like The Bahamas bounce back after projecting an excellent tourism performance for the first half of 2019?
Every resident in The Bahamas understands what a “hurricane” is and what it can do to displace a destination or a nation. With a defined circulation and sustained winds of 74 miles per hour (mph) or more, hurricanes are tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico and the eastern North Pacific Ocean. Hurricanes are known as typhoons in the western Pacific and cyclones in the Indian Ocean. For The Bahamas, we rely on the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, for the monitoring and issuing of watches and warnings in the Atlantic and Northeast basins. The Saffir/Simpson scale in the United States is used to rate the strength of hurricanes. This scale assigns a storm to one of five categories based on its wind speed and can baseline the expected impact and damage. Categories are determined by “maximum sustained winds” as follows: Category 1, 74 to 95 mph; Category 2, 96 to 110 mph; Category 3, 111 to 130 mph; Category 4, 131 to 155 mph; and Category 5, 156 mph and more. The recent Hurricane Dorian sustained winds of more than 185 mph, making it an all-time high velocity. So, is Category 6 in the making? Are we still doubting that global warming has something to do with this intense weather phenomena?
Hurricanes start when warm, moist air from the ocean surface begins to rise rapidly, where it encounters cooler air that causes the warm water vapor to condense and form storm clouds and drops of rain. Hence, typically hurricanes develop over the warm tropical or subtropical waters around the world, which include in the Atlantic basin (North Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea); Northeast Pacific basin (from Mexico to the dateline); Northwest Pacific basin (from the dateline to Asia); North Indian basin (including the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea); Southwest India basin (Africa); Southeast Indian/Australian basin; and Australian/Southwest Pacific basin.
Resilience in tourism
The Caribbean is one of the most tourism-dependent regions in the world. A recent report from World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) indicated that, “Travel and tourism sector contributes over 15 percent of Caribbean gross domestic product (GDP) and supports nearly 14 percent of all employment. In 2016, 46.7 million international visitors came to destinations in the region spending US$31.4 billion.” Despite the devastation caused by hurricanes in recent years, travelers are still attracted to the Atlantic hurricane zone, which includes the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the beaches along the Atlantic Coast during summer and fall, which is typically hurricane season in these regions.
As a nation, there is little that we can do to avoid a hurricane if it decides to pound anything that comes its way. As a tourism nation, resilience is critical for the sustainability of the industry and to weather natural disasters like hurricanes. Resilience has been defined as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks”. The essence of a resilient tourism destination is the ability of the destination (or the country) to regroup, re-evaluate, rebuild and recover. Hence, time frames for recovery can be significantly reduced when all of the stakeholders (led by the government) make the necessary preparation and recovery plans. In a country like The Bahamas where hurricanes are part and parcel of life, a well laid out and tested plan should be long in place. We need to beef up NEMA into a stronger, more efficient agency with regards to preventing and recovering from disasters.
“The Sphere of Tourism Resilience”, first introduced by Janet Cochrane in her 2010 article in Tourism Recreation Research (Volume 35, Issue 2), outlined the most important dimension for resilience in tourism. According to Cochrane, the sustainable management of all resources impacted by large scale natural disasters (like hurricanes) is dependent on three main dimensions: (1) harnessing of market forces; (2) stakeholder cohesion (the close relationship of all parties – both private, public, civil services, non-governmental organizations, union bodies, etc.); and (3) leadership (of the government).
“An awareness of market forces and the ability to harness them is vital, since without successful engagement with the market, any system is doomed to collapse,” she adds. Further, “stakeholder cohesion and associative working is critical as everyone has separate roles and strengths, and only by deploying these in a coordinated fashion can resources be exploited more equitably, bearing in mind the needs of future generations as well as our own”. She further asserted that, “strong and consistent leadership expressed through clear vision and good management, either from individuals or institutions, is required to create structures that can resolve conflicts over resource use, drive forward change, and spark cohesiveness and market engagement amongst stakeholders.”
In the model, other broader, contextual elements of the system are also significant. They include, (1) “flexibility”, which is required to circumvent the over-rigidity which quite often leads to an inability to accommodate stress; (2) “adaptability”, which is critical in managing all the other systems which effect the social-ecological systems and must be incorporated into institutions and regulations, for example, macro-economic policy shifts, technological advances, market trends or supply chain linkages; and (3) “learning”, which is needed and includes both formal and informal about relevant systems through careful planning and evaluations.
Bouncing back to pre-crisis level
Thus, priority should be given to implement government policies that are supportive for the growth and the long-term environmental and economic resilience of the tourism industry. This is critical as most countries in the Caribbean rely heavily on tourism as the main contributor to the gross domestic product (GDP). They are particularly vulnerable to the effects that climate change may bring. The high debt-to-GDP ratio in many countries in the Caribbean is due to the effect of borrowing to rebuild infrastructure ravaged by storms and hurricanes. Indeed, the vulnerability to the extreme weather conditions in the Caribbean will have a debilitating effect on the growth of the country.
In times of crisis, it is crucial for the residents to demonstrate unity and for the government to play an effective leadership role in steering the resources needed for the country or destination to bounce back rapidly. Restoring public confidence to pre-crisis level is critical.
Subsequently, enhancing the business climate in The Bahamas is one aspect of resilience. Currently, the government is putting renewed focus on making it easier to do business – streamlining services, addressing inefficiencies and maximizing technology to close efficiency gaps. The economic recovery of a country can be accelerated if business-friendly policies that encourage investment and redevelopment are in place. In times of disaster, businesses need assistance to rebound, boost the economy and ensure greater prosperity for the local population. Only when the local population is happy can that translate to good support for the visitors and tourists coming into the country.
Visitation to many of the destinations well after the crisis (like the hurricane) is over, may be dampened due to product and infrastructure damage. Hence, policies must be in place to incentivize and ease the recovery and redevelopment of the destination. This includes settling insurance claims, securing capital to rebuild (especially for small and medium-sized establishments), timely redevelopment of damaged infrastructure, and tax and duty exemptions for building materials, furnishings, equipment and appliances for an extended period of time. Any external aid would help support the governments in this. Further, ensuring timely access to technical skills and capacity in the form of temporarily easing entry and work permit restrictions can further speed up the recovery process.
The larger hotels and establishments may need less capital assistance compared to the local small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Development banks and multilateral organizations should consider offering subsidized and guaranteed loans to assist smaller locally-owned businesses recover from hurricanes. Additionally, loans could assist locals wanting to start new tourism businesses.
Marketing and communication strategy
One of the biggest challenges faced by destinations impacted by a crisis is the inaccurate communication on the status of the destination. Travel advisories that are imprecise can destroy a destination which is trying to rebound. Quite often, visitors and tourists most receptive to returning to the destination are those already familiar with the country, either through previous visits or friends and family. Thus, establishing a long-term specialized marketing, communication and messaging strategy is critical in crisis prone destinations like The Bahamas. Normally, the first returning visitors and tourists are most likely to be motivated by empathy and altruism.
Ideal media stories can include those of resilience and recovery. The following effective messaging strategy is possible:
(1) Celebrity endorsements: particularly effective approach for destinations that are fully recovered;
(2) Community readiness: overcoming the tourists’ concern that they may not be welcome can also be an effective campaign;
(3) Business as usual: showing that the destination is open and ready for business;
(4) Customer testimonial: endorsement from the visitors/tourists who have visited the region during or after the event;
(5) Curiosity enhancement: highlighting the beauty of a regenerating landscape is most effective when the destination has recovered fully;
(6) Promotion of events: focusing on scheduled festivals and events in the affected region is most effective in attracting returning visitors; and
(7) Short-term discounts: reducing prices temporarily will entice tourists who are looking at competitively priced alternative destinations.
Further, for destinations that are prone to natural disasters like hurricanes, having a strong reserve of funds for recovery is essential. This special fund must always be made available. This is critical as this “rainy-day fund” will allow for a continued strong marketing effort during an economic downturn (in which traditional funding sources such as hotel taxes may be in decline). These funds can assist destination marketing organizations (DMOs) to continue their normal marketing efforts without loss of efficiency due to restricted funding.
The Caribbean is comprised of diverse destinations, each with distinctive and unique attractions, cultures and experiences. However, in the minds of many travelers, the region offers an essentially similar product, which is amazing beaches and awesome tropical weather. For most travelers, the decision to come to a particular destination will depend on the stability of the region in general. In the case of The Bahamas, what happens in the Caribbean will determine whether the traveler wants to proceed to do more research and evaluate a specific destination or island. Hence, the region generally will benefit from the availability of cooperative marketing and branding.
In short, understanding resilience is imperative for a tourism country like The Bahamas to “regroup, re-evaluate, rebuild and recover” from the annual hurricane that is always threatening the region. As indicated by C.S. Holling in his landmark publication, “Theories for Sustainable Futures”, in Conservation Ecology, Volume 4(2): “The resilience cycle clarifies the meaning of ‘sustainable development’ in that ‘sustainability’ is the capacity of a system to create, test and maintain adaptive capability, while ‘development’ complements this by creating, testing, and maintaining opportunity.” Hence, applying resilience to tourism in a destination like The Bahamas is critical for sustainable development and it can be viewed as an evolving complex system that co-adapts to the specifics of the particular destination, especially to the aspirations and values of the local community.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean of graduate studies and research and a professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.
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