A Tiring,Sterile Debate!

Just under six months ago—before Sir Dwight Venner confirmed our main problem had nearly always been poor leadership, not money!—an invitee to our shores was asked on-air how it might be possible for this nation, near ruined and on the brink of bankruptcy, to survive the modern day Hydra generally referred to as “this unending world economic crisis.”

The especially erudite, not to say diplomatic, visitor happened to be a son of Saint Lucia who had long been a permanent resident of somewhere else. His loaded chuckle suggested a million responses, none deflating.

Then, quite unnecessarily, I thought, he said: “It is true I’m with the IMF but I am here only in my personal capacity to deliver an address on the 34th anniversary of our proud nation’s Independence.” Or some such pap that translated into “nothing I might say during my short stay will contradict the International Monetary Fund’s opinion of you   (wink, wink) but please don’t quote me as if I were speaking for the organization. I repeat, I speak only for myself.”

In almost biblical tones the freelancing IMF man went on: “If you would begin to solve your economic problems, then you must return to your roots. You must go back to where you started, perchance to discover how you arrived at your present position.”

No one knew better than the IMF man on which his toast was buttered and why he had chosen deliberately not to provide a straight answer to Poleon’s question. What would’ve been the point, anyway? Like his IMF bosses, he knew only too well who were the largest contributors to our current predicament.

Of course the IMF man’s advice was nevertheless unimpeachable. In plain man-at-the-back-of the-rum-shop babble, it recommended we acknowledge reality and reconsider the long-ago embraced delusion that the televised fiction we gobble up nightly is real life in America, to which lifestyle we are ourselves absolutely entitled, First World wages, perks and all.

The unspoken message also suggested we revisit the imagined days of wine and roses when in Saint Lucia and her equally poverty-stricken sister territories progress was manifest in the countless new cars that our few roads could barely accommodate, not to mention the annual billions of dollars handed back to the initial donors as payment for imported vehicles, food items and refrigerators large enough to house a small family.

Indeed, we soon learned to lose our appetite for anything locally grown in favor of suitably flavored imported killer produce, some not allowed on the supermarket shelves of their country of origin.

I well recall a particular prime minister crowing mindlessly in William Peter Boulevard that our sister islands coveted the success we’d made of our own banana industry, the fruits of which were our countless concrete mansions where once there were only relative shacks. Said the prime minister to his adoring fans, “They all want to come to the land of milk and honey,” never mind that in actuality little of it originated here.

He bragged, too, about the gas and electric stoves, the monster hi-fi sets (ask your 50-year-old great granny to tell you about them and the shiny vinyl LPs that fed them; admittedly they’ve been a long time extinct) and the air-condition units in every room—none of them home made.

What more developed societies denounced as consumerism gone mad, our leaders to nowhere taught their bleating ovine followers to worship their cars and their FAR vans and other evidence of our shortsightedness as undeniable symbols of success—available to all, provided they voted as directed at the next general elections!

Unforgettably when a visiting perspicacious journalist published in a respected overseas journal that many young women made ends meet by selling their flesh a stone’s throw from police headquarters, one prime minister famously countered in the House: “We may have some poverty but it’s poverty with a smile. We may be poor but we’re happy.”

In response to opposition “prophets of doom” announcements related to the threatened future of our banana industry, a prime minister cavalierly promised “our friends in Europe will never let us down,” deadly WTO signals or not. And for that the nation’s “then best brains” congratulated their leader’s optimism.

Come Budget time, successive prime ministers could hardly wait to bloviate—above the din of shamelessly partisan applause—about the multi-millions they planned to spend on capital expenditure (the phrase being a cute euphemism for blatant corruption in all its killing varieties).

The best part was that no one dared, not even the House opposition (and certainly not the nation’s consultant best brains whose survival has always depended for their lips-to-anus relationship with no-talent incumbent politicians), to talk about accountability.

The government might easily have shut down its audit department and few would’ve noticed, let alone cared.

Yes, so said in words unspoken the IMF man who did not wish to be quoted as the voice of the IMF: if you truly want to start extricating yourselves from the grip of the economic Hydra then walk backward to the place you started from and take note of how you brought yourselves to your present failed state.

Last week, the prime minister, as if he were a visitor freshly landed from Mars and therefore oblivious of real life in Saint Lucia, served SLHTA what just had to be the largest pie in the sky he and his assistants had ever baked.

It is no secret the prime minister and the tourism association that daily wrestles with harsh reality do not see eye to eye. Shortly after returning to office in 2011 after five years “in purgatory” (the revelation came from the prime minister himself, you will recall)—from which vantage he had at last discovered real life in Saint Lucia, the prime minister promised that by mid-2013 tourism would again be bouncy-bouncy and the world economy once again normal. Conceivably he picked up this information from some discarded U.S. politician’s campaign pamphlet.

His obviously over-optimistic predictions, delivered during his first budget address since returning to office, had conflicted sharply with  the realities underscored by the SLHTA president during her association’s gloomy 2011 AGM.

But then our prime minister is particularly notorious for superimposing his hope-filled fantasies on reality. He continued, in the manner of delusional others before him, to cite the increases in tourism arrivals and how much the visitors had spent, compared with the dry months before his reelection. That the SLHTA president had warned about such tea-leaf reading by amateurs didn’t matter to the prime minister, who has never operated a

business, and has for most of his working life been a tax-funded public servant.

When hotel representatives spoke of increasingly bitter days with no signs of relief any time soon, the prime minister resurrected one of his more notorious otiosities: Better days were just around the corner!

Called yet again to address the SLHTA, he said: “I am told that this year you celebrate your 49th anniversary. This means that by 1964 there was already a galvanizing of interests in the hotel and tourism sector. Interestingly, the newspapers of the 1950s mooted the potential of the northeast cost for hotels and tourism. Who knows, that area could well be our next frontier in tourism development.”

Bear in mind his audience was largely from the much-troubled private sector, nearly all closely related to the tourism industry, altogether familiar with the road from Cap through Vieux Fort, Soufriere, Anse la Raye and back. The audience had long known their industry’s main problems had little to do with the number of available
hotel rooms. Report after expensive report had long established that what really is killing local tourism is related to value for money. Air fares to the Caribbean are sky high and competition is more than ever stiff. Americans are encouraged at every turn to vacation in their own country. For relative peanuts they can get a room and tickets to see top–rated Vegas shows. Food is cheap compared to what we charge, largely because much of what we serve our guests must be imported.

The prime minister’s revelation that his government is “so anxious to build a new highway along the eastern coast, linking the north to Dennery” sounds like more election-time tooth-fairy tales to an audience only too familiar with the nightmarish realities of their industry.

The prime minister cited an article in the 12 July 2013 Jamaica Observer relating to “the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1920s.” Nothing about the reported difficulties experienced by their fellow hoteliers in Jamaica, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and so on was new to the audience.

“In Anguilla, properties stand naked, unfinished,” said the prime minister, taking to visiting prepubescent Martians. “Even the world famous Cup Jaluca is on the market awaiting new buyers.”

Obviously forgotten was that in 2012, high on the juices of his reelection, the same prime minister had predicted tourism would be “bouncy again in a year and a half.” He reminded his audience, most of whom he’d recently been fighting over VAT charges, about hotel properties in the hands of receivers He described them as “these failures”  that would “clearly have implications for the financing of future investment.”

He’d delivered the build-up, now he was ready for the climax: “We must now use the experiences of the past three years to entrench and reposition our industry.”

We needed ask ourselves, as we map out Saint Lucia’s tourism future: Where will the next 100,000 additional visitors come from to bring us the over 400,000 mark?

How do we increase our worldwide brand recognition? What will the visitor or traveler of 2020 or 2030 want? Will they be able to find what they’re looking for in Saint Lucia? Is it enough to provide sun, beach, romance and undoubted charm and hospitality?

“Yes,” he said, squirting the KY. “We’ve had remarkable successes. We’ve been a leading honeymoon destination for many years now. You have some of the best hotel properties in the world according to many international reviews. Only just recently we read of the sterling accolades of the joint properties of Jade Mountain and Anse Chastanet, but the question I ask is: ‘How do you promote high standards while being realistic about our clientele in today’s market?’ What do today’s travelers consider value for money?” (Emphasis mine]

A man of obvious great faith in his potions, he added: “I believe that if we place a critical eye on the details, on the quality, on excellence, on being better than any other, then there is no doubt that we will see growth; that our occupancy rates will be high, that visitor spending will go up, that our profit margins will look a lot healthier than they might now.”

Of course he was mindful of such island destinations as “a Malta, a Mauritius, a Maldives, a Tahiti, a Phuket, a Bali, the Seychelles and the Philippines.” There was also
to consider “the affordability of the Bahamas, Aruba, Jamaica, Dominican
Republic and high-end newcomers like the Turks
and Caicos . . . How do we stand our own against the rise of an eco-friendly Costa Rica or an authentic Cuba?”

While he had not been happy to hear a Bajan official crowing that tourism in Saint Lucia was at least thirty years behind Barbados, the prime minister was generous enough to admit “we may not yet be on par with Barbados in terms of rooms, stay-over arrivals and airlift” but clearly we’d come a long way and were “certainly growing at a
faster pace,” all because our product was “unique and authentic.”  (Authentic as authentic Cuba?)

Oh, if only horses had wings. “We are different and we must stay different,” said the prime minister to the troops of the tourism sector. “Unfortunately the financial crisis took its toll, interrupting our progress. Many proposed developments throughout our island were aborted. Had these developments taken place, Saint Lucia would have had the most sophisticated tourism plant in the region.” Mais nauturellement.

“So now, back to the drawing board,” and a recent study by the International Finance Corporation that had (like others before) underscored “supply and demand factors that entail marketing of Saint Lucia, product development and standards, cultural and man-made resources development and hospitality.”

Then there was the other side of the coin. “We have the supportive environment which encompasses the ease of doing business, the investment climate, transportation and infrastructure, the national environment, safety and security, and the regulatory framework and policy.”

Those conditions had all been flagged as “areas in which action is required if we are to narrow the gap between Saint Lucia and its competitors.”

As the prime minister saw it, “the new challenges currently facing the industry demand a greater collaboration among government, state agencies, your individual members, as well as the combined efforts of your association.”

Frankly, he added, “we really have to cease the bickering over each other’s credentials and commitment to tourism. It is a tiring and sterile debate!” (Where did that come from?)

He said the SLHTA should be best placed to know what the industry requires—and also should be best placed to pool together resources to make some critical advances in collaboration with government. Already the government was committing every year “nearly $45 million” into marketing Saint Lucia through the tourist board and “another $5 million or so in the running of the Ministry of Tourism, Heritage & Creative industries.”

Importantly: “For every one dollar spent directly by the state, the government receives $32 in return.” Meanwhile Barbados’ return on investment is $43, Mauritius $49 and Jamaica $52.

“In other words,” said the prime minister, “we are not receiving the best, or, if you like, the most competitive value for our investment.”

Finally, the prime minister came to what was probably the heart of his address: “The tourism interest cannot be purported to end at the property gate. Or at the water’s edge. Your interest, the interest of all hoteliers, must be for the development of the entire destination and not just the hotel. All-inclusive must be inclusive of the wider destination experience that supports the tourism value chain.

“Your association must come of age. It must be an age of maturity. It should not be the middle ages of stagnation but an age of renaissance for our sector. If there is a lesson to be learned from Barbados, it is the willingness of the private sector to take initiatives. Too many continue to believe that the challenge to develop our island is the sole responsibility of the government!” [My emphasis]

Something tells me the
prime minister spoke yet
again with his foot in his mouth. For indeed developing our island is the government’s
sole responsibility.
Nothing more is expected of the government than to carry out that vital one responsibility, regardless of all that “development” entails. No ifs or buts.

I suspect what the prime minister meant to say was (his speechwriters be damned!) that too many see our island’s development as the responsibility of the government alone, to be carried out by the government with absolutely no input from its citizens. That, dear reader, is by a million miles different from what the prime minister actually told the aghast audience at the SLHTA’s July 3, 2013 annual general meeting.

A very long way!

 

 

 

 

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