Planning the tourism transformation

In the snap election that just concluded, the people of The Bahamas spoke clearly by voting for a new government while the country is still trying to maintain its economic footing in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the people of The Bahamas, loyalty to a political party has weaned as evident from the frequent changes in government during the past six general elections. To withstand these changes in administration, what the people need is a concrete plan of recovery that can transcends politics and serve as a national bipartisan plan. Period!

As reported by Bloomberg recently on September 17th, “Amid lockdowns and curfews, the economy shrank 16 percent in 2020, one of the world’s deepest slumps, and is only expected to recover about 2 percent by year-end 2021.” With the new government in The Bahamas given the mandate to carry out the much-needed economic transformation, the role of tourism will become as important as ever. My Op-Ed in December 4th, 2020 entitled, “Transforming Tourism Post COVID-19” discussed some of the transformations that are required. Given the political changes that are happening in The Bahamas currently, I would like to reiterate and further elaborate how the country can bounce back stronger than ever, post COVID-19.

Current status of

Based on the recently published study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in their 2021 quarterly bulletin, there is hope that the cycles of lockdowns and containment measures will eventually come to an end as vaccination programmes progress, even if unevenly, across the region.

So, vaccination is key for any nation to stay relevant as we move into a new normal. I have discussed this in length in my most recent Op-Ed (August 27th, 2021, “Vaccination Equals Opening the Economy”). The Bahamas, like many other countries in the Caribbean, are among the world’s most tourism dependent Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and the global tourism sector has been most affected by COVID-19. The IDB report further indicates that in the first quarter of 2021, total visitor arrivals in The Bahamas increased by 122 percent compared to the previous quarter but below the 1.7 million figures in the same period in 2020. Airlines are slowly resuming operations, namely British Airways, Copa Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Frontier Airways, Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Silver Airways, Caribbean Airlines and a few others.

As for occupancy in resorts, both Atlantis and Baha Mar are expecting the number to rise 75 to 90 percent if there is no setback in the current COVID-19 cases which is still appearing to be a challenge. The cruise industry is slowly coming back with the homeporting of Royal Caribbean’s Adventures of the Seas and Crystal Serenity further boosting the number. As far as real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is concerned, as expected, the tourism sector recorded the largest contraction (by 76.4 percent). Nonetheless, it is not all bleak as far as the future is concerned. As a nation, we need to come together and stay disciplined as the country plans out its recovery.

Continue to transform

Firstly, we need to understand that despite all our efforts, it will be near impossible to achieve “zero cases” for COVID-19. After 20 months, by now we should know how to live with this virus with effective health protocols implemented and enforced. If we decide to return to business-as-usual approaches, then this is going to be a painful and long journey to recovery with constant relapses which will only further stifle the economy’s growth. Innovations are key to improve our resiliency. We need to regroup, re-evaluate, rebuild, and recover to achieve significant advancements despite the adversity that this pandemic has imposed on us all.

Hence, it is imperative that the country maps out its Tourism Strategic Plan. This plan should be rolled out every five years with updates coming from our learnings (assessments and evaluations) during the period. A continuous improvement cycle can be structured. This plan must stay relevant no matter who the government of the day is. The University of The Bahamas (UB), being apolitical, must play a pivotal role in collaborating with all the stakeholders to develop this plan. The Government and Public Policy Institute (GPPI) at UB can be the custodian of this plan that will track every stakeholder in responsibly executing the strategies and action plan.

Priority should be placed on the following key areas: governance, tourism investment, tourism digitalization, enriching tourist experience, strengthening the commitment towards sustainable and responsible tourism, and also increasing the human resources capacity in the sector. Technology centered tourism development will be the way forward for the industry. All tourism planning that takes place must be responsible to ensure a balance between economic development and environmental preservation. The Bahamas is rich with its national treasures encapsulating the environment, culture and heritage.

So, what are key areas to focus on in this transformation plan? (1) Look at all the traditional tourism operations, and analyze how to innovate or think out of the box to transform and embrace the new tourism paradigm. Come out of the business-as-usual approach; (2) Evidence-based policy is fundamental for good governance. Have a mechanism that will allow the national university to play a more critical role; (3) The pandemic has shown us that diversification of the local economy including tourism products is key to remain resilient. Every island in The Bahamas will need to think beyond the box about how they can diversify their tourism product in addition to its much tested “sun, sand and sea” products; (4) Agritourism must be emphasized more than ever. There are already good initiates started under the Agritourism Council. Work by the Council should be further supported to develop this important sector to be a mainstream activity of tourism; (5) Micro and small local tourism businesses need to be made resilient by making it easier for the community to get the support needed in their businesses; (6) All tourism products must be creative in their design and involvement of the visitors to make them regenerative. Regenerative travel or tourism is leaving a place better than you found it. Overtourism should be avoided if it creates more long-term damage. Undertourism with a high yield that focuses on high-quality experiential travel is certainly the way forward. Rural tourism and community-based tourism can be an excellent product that can serve this aim. Further, boutique hotels may be the future versus large and massive tourism development; and (7) As a country that is always dealing with a crisis – both natural and manmade, The Bahamas must be the world leader in managing any form of crisis with groundbreaking approaches. Every crisis will allow us to learn from the mistake and improve the plan or process.

The future

The sustainability and evolution of the Bahamian tourism industry will depend on our commitment to develop a National Tourism Strategic, Investment and Action Plan with the objectives to increase tourism receipts, employment, and income through tourism product diversification; promote disaster and climate resilience and environmental sustainability in tourism sites; improve sector governance, creating enabling conditions for private sector investment in tourism; and propose institutional strengthening and capacity building initiatives within the broad context of nation-building.

The Bahamas is presented with an opportunity to reset and reimagine the future of the tourism industry, as we get out of the COVID-19 pandemic and also an opportunity for the new government to innovate for the transformation and adaptability of the tourism sector. So, let us continue to collaborate as we get out of this pandemic while adhering to all health protocols to stay safe.

• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean, graduate studies and research and professor of sustainable tourism at the University of The Bahamas.

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