Op-Ed

Consider This | Falling on deaf ears, pt. 1

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” Matthew 13:9, New King James Version

In his three-year ministry, Jesus of Nazareth provided 33 parables that were memorialized in four Gospels.

In each of the parables — the lost sheep, a mustard seed, a woman searching for her lost coin, an errant son and a barren fig tree, to mention a few — Jesus conveyed extraordinary and timeless truths.

Their impact and enduring effectiveness lie in making deeper theological truths and life lessons accessible to all. In their Gospels, Matthew and Mark admonished us that, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

Two thousand years after Jesus’ ministry, we are constantly bombarded with modern-day examples of lessons from which we should learn, if only we would listen.

Therefore, this week, we would like to consider this — are many of the lessons to be learned that we daily confront falling on deaf ears?

Are we really listening?

This week, we will address the lessons that we should have learned from our over-reliance upon and the homogeneous nature of our primary industry: tourism.

Tourism, our primary economic pillar

From the moment that we become consciously aware of our existential realities, we are wisely cautioned not to place all our eggs into a single basket.

The logical reason for this admonition is instructive.

By placing all of our proverbial eggs into a single basket, if we stumble and drop that basket or if that basket is taken away from us, we can lose most, if not all of those eggs, thereby forgoing the benefits that we can derive from their productive employment or personal enjoyment.

We have repeatedly ignored this admonition relative to our principal economic activity: the tourism sector.

For nearly a century, we have consistently concentrated our national economic development by dedicating our national and human resources to this single tourism activity.

We could liken our single-mindedness to a farmer who, year after year, plants a single crop, oblivious of the need for crop rotation or diversification so that his soil won’t become depleted, eventually preventing him from successfully continuing to grow that crop.

Besides, we have not maximized the potential that this sector offers its stakeholders and beneficiaries.

For too long, we have fixated on the number of tourist arrivals, rather than the relative contribution that diverse components of the sector contribute to this national endeavor.

We have, for example, ignored the exponential benefits that are derived from stopover visitors — that is, the “heads in beds” — as compared to the meagerly marginal contribution of cruise ship passenger visitors, to our gross domestic product (GDP).

From a purely investment perspective, we have failed to maximize our national return on investment by focusing principally on the total number of arrivals, without fully appreciating that, while all tourist arrivals are important, not all arrivals are equal.

While cruise ship arrivals meagerly contribute to our national output, in terms of tourist expenditure, there is no question that the contribution of stopover visitors to our GDP and foreign reserves is exponentially superior.

Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar, at the Abaco Business Outlook conference in September 2017, observed that 70 percent of The Bahamas’ six million-plus annual visitors are cruise passengers.

He said, “The cruise ship visitor spends an average of $70, while the stopover visitors spend an average of $1,500.”

The minister also noted that destinations such as Aruba and St. Marten were generating cruise passenger spend in the range of $180 to $190 per person.

The third observation about this sector is that we have accentuated the primacy of promoting massive, foreign-owned mega-resorts as opposed to locally-owned boutique tourist destinations that afford more significant investment opportunities to a larger number of Bahamian tourism stakeholders.

By now, we must appreciate the enormous benefit that would inure to our citizens if they owned a greater share of the tourism plant and equipment. Sadly, however, with very few exceptions, our tourism industry is foreign-owned.

This concentration on tourism for our national development has resulted in the sector accounting for nearly 60 percent of our GDP. This sector has employed more Bahamians than all the other private sector businesses combined.

The way forward

While we are not suggesting that we should abandon our tourism sector, we should question whether it is prudent to continue to be so singularly reliant on tourism to fuel our economy and to allow its dominance by foreigners as we have in the past.

This writer believes that we should make several fundamental adjustments if we want to redefine our tourism industry.

First, we must determine what a 21st Century Bahamian tourism industry looks like.

What are its offerings, its competitive advantages, its unique attributes and its distinct appeals?

Will the industry simply replicate the tourism landscape of the past, or will it be re-engineered, reconstituted and repositioned for the future?

We fully recognize that, while tourism will continue to remain critical to our national development, we should consider shifting our focus and the landscape from being foreign-owned and dominated to a more substantial Bahamian-owned sector.

This can be significantly assisted by a national determination, along with concerted entrepreneurial effort, and the political will to assist Bahamians to gain a larger share of the sector in several ways.

For example, if we are going to grant enormous concessions to the stakeholders in this sector, those concessions should be overwhelmingly skewed in favor of Bahamians to encourage them to invest in the tourism plant and equipment and to become owners of the industry, not just employees.

Secondly, we must recognize that it will be considerably easier for Bahamians to develop boutique resorts that feature unique services to an increasingly diverse and discerning domestic and international tourism customer.

We have been blessed with many islands that are distinctly different from each other that appeal to varying tastes of the informed, vacationing consumer.

We have observed several successful tourism enterprises scantily scattered throughout our archipelago, which Bahamians should replicate on all our Family Islands.

We must also address the fact that today’s millennial tourist, unlike those of preceding generations, does not exclusively want the cocooning experience provided by the mega-hotel; instead, they, like the butterflies that have emerged from those cocoons, want to fly free, experiencing for themselves everything in the lush garden that is The Bahamas.

Third, the government must demonstrate the political will and determination to address the cruise ship industry in The Bahamas.

For too long, we have entertained an erroneous outlook that this sector of the tourism industry has significantly contributed to our national development.

This is a false premise and has created a false economy. As the minister of tourism has already noted, the cruise ship industry contributes very little to our national output.

We should, therefore, exact more from this sector.

We must discontinue allowing them to rape and plunder our country by purchasing or leasing islands that offer minimal economic benefit to the islands’ inhabitants and the Bahamians employed there.

We must not buy into the propensity of lackadaisical politicians who bemoan the imminent departure of the cruise industry if the government does not grant them obscene concessions.

The truth is that they will not go anywhere.

The competitive advantage of our proximity to the United States and resulting savings in transportation costs alone, along with the unmatched beauty of our islands and incomparably welcoming hospitality of the Bahamian spirit, will dissuade them from going elsewhere. And they will still be profitable. But our resolve requires uncompromisingly unshakable and intractably irreconcilable intestinal fortitude.

Fourth, we identify the attractions that will entice today’s stopover visitors to return to our shores.

For too long, we have abandoned our cultural, artistic and uniquely Bahamian offerings that once attracted them. We must understand why they came and what caused them to leave, and then reinvent and rebrand our tourism product considering our past failings and shortcomings, tailoring it to the preferences of the modern traveler.

Answers to the question about how we reinvent and restore our tourism product have become urgently critical.

As a result of the fall off of this sector, and others, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic’s debilitating impact has adversely impacted many thousands of lives.

According to Minister of Public Service and National Insurance Brensil Rolle, as of March 31 there were “…17,000 unemployment claims already filed by Bahamians amid the COVID-19 crisis…”

He added that those claims did “not include staff laid off by major resorts”.

It is overly simplistic to believe that we would not have been as adversely affected by the pandemic as most other countries have been if Bahamians had a more significant stake in our tourism product.

However, when Bahamians invest in our primary industry, the destiny of our tourism will be driven more by local stakeholders rather than be dictated by others. Furthermore, as indigenous stakeholders in a post-pandemic environment, we would have a more significant say and more control about how we develop this vital sector of the Bahamian economy. We would have a larger and a louder voice in our economic destiny.

Conclusion

Next week, in part two of this series, we will address whether the many warnings that have been signaled over the years relative to our environment, food security and economic empowerment have also fallen on deaf ears, as they have in tourism.

We have been admonished, that, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

For too long, we have ignored important warnings about our tourism industry.

If we are going to survive and surmount the challenges of the 21st Century and beyond, we must reassess, reconsider and revise our approach to our national development, and, most importantly, listen to the wisdom of those who have seen the future.

The time has arrived for us to hear more clearly, to become more closely attuned to the warning signs that abound all around us. And as we listen, we must do so not only with our ears, but, more importantly, with our hearts.

• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis and Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com.

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