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We must get “Tourism Ready”!

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Fri, Jul 19, 2011

Caribbean countries continue to suffer a battering as the prolonged global economic crisis impacts more and more negatively on our small, open economies. There is not a single Caribbean country, not even oil-blessed Trinidad and Tobago, which can consider itself in the comfort zone, and many are in, or bordering on, dire economic straits.{{more}} Life is becoming extremely difficult for most of the region’s peoples, at a time when expectations have vastly increased. Worse, external support, either in the form of development assistance or direct foreign investment, has declined, in keeping with the belt-tightening in the developed countries, while traditional remittances have shrunk, as our migrant populations abroad feel the squeeze.

Our sources of export income are dwindling steadily in the face of global trade arrangements which are unfavourable to us, and we lag behind in the efforts to re-orient our economies to suit the rapidly changing times. Sugar, bananas, rice and rum have all suffered and our forays in the offshore financial sector have come up against obstacles. So, for us, tourism seemed to be the best bet. But here again, in spite of the obvious natural attractions of the Caribbean, formidable hurdles need to be cleared. There are challenges with air transport connections, available facilities, ease of intra-Caribbean travel and the comparatively high cost of Caribbean holidays, worsened by multiple taxes.

Countries like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, not traditionally in the forefront of the Caribbean tourism chart, have a lot of catching up to do. But obstacles keep arising, some through no fault of ours, but others very much of our own doing. Last week’s announcement of the pull-out of the Princess cruise line from SVG during the 2011/12 season typifies both. There are factors relevant to factors in the north impacting on costs and hence, scheduling of port calls. There is little we can do about these.

However, other reasons impacting on such decisions are most worrying for us and necessitate urgent attention. One such is the perception of our country as being “unfriendly” to tourists. This may shock those accustomed to the view that Vincentians are very hospitable, but it stems from the view that we are just not yet “tourist friendly”, aware of the importance of tourism to our economies and prepared to make the social adjustments to facilitate the development of this sector. A tremendous amount of work, from education and awareness-raising, to the improvement of the physical, recreational and social environment, needs to be done in this regard.

It is easy to downplay the Princess cruise pull-out by proclaiming emphasis on stay-over visitors, but that does not solve the fundamental underlying problems. They become all the more critical in light of our massive investment in the Argyle International Airport project. Our tourism readiness will be needed even more then, if we are to recoup our huge outlay and to benefit from it. Already we notice that big hotel expansion depends on international air transport links, but tourists will only come, in a highly competitive environment, if we are prepared to remedy our many ills – the state of facilities, bad roads, insensitivity to physically-challenged persons, transport and hotel shortcomings, congestion and cleanliness of Kingstown and our failure to appreciate the value of this vital industry to our very survival. We cannot afford to dither any longer. We must make ourselves tourism friendly.

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