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For sustainability, tourism marketing plans should have social, economic and cultural resonance at their core – UN Ambassador, Liz Thompson

For sustainability, tourism marketing plans should have social, economic and cultural resonance at their core – UN Ambassador, Liz Thompson
Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Elizabeth Thompson

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Getting tourists to our destinations in the Caribbean is only part of the equation says Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Elizabeth Thompson.

“…but are we placing social, economic and cultural resonance at the core of the tourism marketing plans and ultimately our sustainability and success?”

That question was asked by Thompson on August 29 at the 2019 Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism (STC2019) which was held under the theme “Keeping the Right Balance: Tourism Development in an Era of Diversification.”

Thompson said that in the region, we are proceeding on the premise that there will always be a Caribbean tourism product, but that may not always be the case.

“…May I remind you that ‘for everything there is a season and a time’. Banana and sugar exports had their time and season.

“There was a period when our forefathers could not have imagined our economies without these agricultural goods. Let us learn from their experience and seek to develop tourism products that are truly sustainable and are more community and culturally oriented,” Thompson told the gathering at the Beachcombers hotel.

Thompson, a former Minister of Government in Barbados who in 2008, was honoured with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s prestigious Champion of the Earth Award for her work in climate change and environment, noted that the World Travel and Tourism Council says that at the moment, there are five global megatrends which are impacting tourism.

Consumption: reimagined; Power: distributed (politically from West to East); Data: revolutionized; Life: restructured; and Reality: enhanced.

Addressing “Consumption Reimagined”, Thompson said that we are living in an era where our actions and choices can impact the planet’s natural environment and climate and as a result there is a push to “go green,” to reduce our carbon footprint, by adjusting our consumption patterns and lifestyles.

She said that this has consequences for travel which may include shorter trips, trips in one’s home region or closer to home, travel that can be done by transport that does not use fossil fuels, taxes to offset carbon emissions, and has given rise to a more environmentally sensitive visitor who is interested in the sustainability practices of a hotel or a destination.

She said that this way of thinking affects the Caribbean tourism product, its price, accessibility and sustainability, in a region where environmental considerations do not underpin hotel operations, are not seen as a source of cost containment, nor as a powerful attractant for visitors.

While she noted that with “Power Distributed”, we are witnessing geopolitical shifts; and friends from the West are not behaving as we have been accustomed and this may affect the sustainability of how we market, to whom we market and who constitutes our market.

Thompson also noted that data and technology are redefining the tourism business.

“Into the word data, I am going to interpose the word technology, which is restructuring jobs and the job market. The first to be impacted were travel agents. Then check-in agents. Then immigration agents. The availability of data on sites such as Yelp and social media platforms serves to point the tourist toward one destination over another and inform visitor choices,” said Thompson.

She said that we can fully expect further and radical industry changes from technology, automation and artificial intelligence and some of the changes have already started.

“What is the level of preparedness of the region in seeing and seizing the new opportunities and preparing for the changes ahead?” she questioned.

Going on, Thompson said that the definition of success in tourism is numbers driven, not value driven and at the base of the marketing effort is an increase in tourism arrivals.

“It appears to me, as a non-tourism specialist, that counting arrivals takes precedence over counting and increasing per capita visitor spend. Caribbean countries are small, fragile ecosystems. We are for the most part, extremely water scarce or water stressed,” said Thompson.

She added that with this in mind, it must be noted that there is a limit to the number of bodies and foot falls that we can have at a beach, in a cave, at a waterfall or at an attraction on any single day, before the pressure on that ecosystem becomes unsustainable.

“In some instances, over-tourism and ecosystem fatigue are evident at some locations and in some countries,” she said.

“I have been raising this issue of the carrying capacity of the ecosystems, infrastructures and services of the islands, including the generation and disposal of waste,” Thompson said while asking, “How do we price our product against the reality, not of increasing the numbers, but respecting the carrying capacity of the islands, while trying to increase visitor spend?

She said that carrying capacity and sustainability are closely linked and it is toward this objective that we should be collecting and collating data for planning purposes.

Thompson added also that we should be pursuing things like a Caribbean game, or online competition based on our natural environment, festivals, heritage and important sites, similar to the popular “Farmville” game.