Earlier this year, what seemed like an alarm on the part of tourism stakeholders in Barbados has developed into a consternation. The news broke that during the period January to April 2013 St Lucia surpassed Barbados in long-staying U.S. visitors. St Lucia recorded 43,335 guests, a 6.6% increase over 2012, while Barbados hosted 42,516 visitors, an 11.9% decrease over last year. This trend seems to be the same with British tourists.
From all indications, it appears that the Bajan national ego has been bruised. How dare one of those “lower” islands exceed our performance? Our industry is so mature, so advanced, so sophisticated. After all, in this scenario we Bajans are the hare; you are the tortoise.
According to the Aesop fable, the presumptuous hare failed to keep an eye on the plodding tortoise by falling asleep, only to be overtaken in the race and defeated. Which takes us to a regrettable perception of sorts here that there is nothing to learn from our island neighbours. Comparisons tend to be made with big and rich nations. Sometimes we even permit ourselves to believe we have the best of everything in the world.
But with the cat now out of the bag regarding declining tourism fortunes, the question was raised in the media about what possibly St Lucia has been doing that Barbados has not. Bear in mind that St Lucia, reminiscent of Aesop’s tortoise, has over decades built a platform of tourism development underpinned by many painstaking, deliberate and internationally-rated indicators. So the increasing visitor gains come as no surprise to anyone who knows the island well.
For starters, the 1970s began with a massive programme in hotel development vis-a-vis a booming banana (green gold) industry. In the northwest, Rodney Bay was dredged. A causeway linking St Lucia with Pigeon Island was constructed. A mosquito-infested swamp became Rodney Bay Marina—now a buzzword far beyond St Lucia’s borders.
Over time the tourism platform was strengthened. The landing of two Nobel Laureates, Sir Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott, the annual St Lucia Jazz Festival, the elevation of the Pitons by UNESCO to a World Heritage Site and the inclusion of brand names in the hotel industry, particularly Sandals, are classic examples of how the island has gained international exposure inexpensively but effectively.
For instance, Sandals owns three prime properties and does its own international marketing on major networks; it does not depend on government. The St Lucia Jazz Festival is rated among the top five in the world, giving St Lucia much exposure by international networks. The World Heritage Site is another free global poster.
The island received another major exposure this year. Business Authority of Monday July 22, 2013 featured the article titled: St Lucia Resorts Named Region’s Top 2. The article stated in part: “The New York based magazine (Travel and Leisure) has chosen two resorts in St Lucia as the top two in the Caribbean. Travel and Leisure listed Jade Mountain and sister property Anse Chastanet as number one and number two in the Caribbean respectively, number 14 and number 21 in the world.”
There are also niche markets that have been exploited. The island ranks among the top ten wedding and honeymoon destinations in the world. The Rodney Bay Marina hosts the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) every year. Heritage tourism is also a viable niche.
The diversity of the tourism product is also worth noting. Barring the obvious activities, visitors can experience scuba diving, sport fishing, aerial tours, ziplining, hiking and mountain climbing, horseback riding, heritage tours, rivers and waterfalls, kayaking, biking, kite surfing and windsurfing, parasailing, day cruises to St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Martinique, among others.
The Sulphur Springs Park and the Pitons are among the most outstanding sites. The Sulphur Springs is a drive-in volcano with many pools of boiling water. The Pitons are two conical peaks rising from the coastline to a height of half a mile each. A mesmerized Oprah Winfrey rated the aerial spectacle among the world’s five must-see sights.
And finally, the global Index of Economic Freedom, published jointly by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal in 2012, ranks St Lucia number one in the Caribbean in terms of economic freedom. Surely, ratings of that stature are keenly watched by foreign investors when determining where to invest.
Notwithstanding all the foregoing, if St Lucia is performing better in some tourism sectors than Barbados, what harm is there with Barbadians coming over here to work? After all, that’s the spirit of CSME. At least, it should be.