A call for critical thinking as we move our tourism industry forward
Oct 4, 2018 - 10:01:36 AM
Please see enclosed jointly written OP-ED piece from BNT Executive Director Eric Carey and One Eleuthera Foundation CEO Shaun Ingraham:
Experts estimate that by the year 2028, a mere decade away, tourism will directly and indirectly contribute over 60% of the Bahamian gross domestic product (GDP). That being the case, we simply cannot afford to make material and ongoing mistakes in this sector. As Bahamians, we owe it to ourselves to assure our political representatives approach the subject of tourism with the utmost care, attention and critical thinking. We must demand that our political representatives focus on preserving and growing segments of our tourism sector that offer the greatest return on investment, the highest employment and ownership potential, with the least environment and cultural degradation.
Disney Cruise Line’s recent announcement of its proposed plan to build a private cruise port at Lighthouse Point at the southern end of Eleuthera has acted as a powerful catalyst for critical thinking about the direction of our tourism industry. If government were to approve Disney’s proposed project, it would be the eighth such private cruise port in this nation: Coco Cay (Little Stirrup Cay), Big Stirrup, Castaway Cay (Gorda Cay), Princess Cays (South Eleuthera), Half Moon Cay (Little San Salvador), Ocean Cay (near Bimini), the Carnival Cruise line project (Grand Bahama), and now Lighthouse Point (South Eleuthera).
Today’s Status Quo
For quite some time now, we have lived within an upside-down tourism economy where around 75% of our visitors contribute only around 10% of our total tourism dollars. Who comprises this 75%? They are cruise passengers. Our Minister of Tourism has neither been ignorant of, nor silent on, the issue. Indeed, over the past two years he has made many public statements on the paradox. Mr. D’Aquilar has not only shed light on this important fact, he has pledged to investigate ways in which our country might effectively increase the clearly anemic and disproportionally small contribution by the cruise industry to our tourism economy. His focus, however, has been limited to exploring ways in which we can entice cruise passengers to spend more money, but has largely ignored the elephant in the room: the increasing number of private cruise ports.
The flip-side of the foregoing reality is that roughly 25% of our visitors contribute around 90% of our total tourism dollars. These gold-star contributors are our “stop-over” visitors, to use a term adopted by our Ministry of Tourism. They are tourist who truly visit The Bahamas, stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and visit our national parks, as well as our historical and cultural sites.
As it turns out, our government compiles and archives statistics on contributions to our tourism economy and the information is publicly available on the Ministry of Tourism’s website. Despite the cruise companies’ rhetoric to the contrary, we see from the historical data that the industry has always contributed little to our tourism economy. If we choose, we can pick any year between 1989 and 2018 and see that nothing much has changed; the cruise industry’s contribution ranges between approximately 8.6% and 12%. In an August 2017 interview with The Guardian, Mr. D’Aguilar said we have placed too much attention on how many visitors have been coming to the country, when the focus should be on how much they spend while in the country.
While the status quo has been in place for quite some time, we are, however, experiencing a strengthening trend. As referenced above, suddenly there are three new private cruise port projects either already under construction or in the planning stages. That bears some scrutiny. After all, we depend upon tourism and we must, therefore, plot our course very carefully.
The Private Cruise Port Model of Tourism
Around 35-40% of all cruise itineraries include our beautiful aquamarine corner of the globe and cruise line profits doubled between 2008 and 2018! Millions of cruise passengers have and will continue to visit private cruise ports in the region. Cruise lines are ecstatic about the private cruise port model of tourism and are investing heavily in creating new and “improved” private facilities. Why? Because the model maximizes the profits to be made by the cruise line while minimizing the potential for profits to be diluted. In other words, the private cruise port model allows the cruise line to capture and keep virtually all revenue generated within the private port and limits opportunities for passengers to spend money elsewhere. What are we, as the host nation, left with? We are given a share of the departure tax that is levied on each passenger and we are given the hope that ships will stop in Nassau. In other words, we are given the status quo: a tourism sector where 75% of our visitors account for only 10% of the total tourism “spend.”
To engage in “critical thinking” means to engage in objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement. If we are to think critically about the cruise industry in The Bahamas, we must ask ourselves whether our continued approval of private cruise ports is in the best interest of our tourism economy. To the extent we have, as a nation, allowed the expansion of the private cruise port model based upon the mere hope that a sizable percentage of cruise passengers who enjoy a private cruise port will return someday as “stop-over” tourists, that hope appears to have been misplaced. According to research conducted by CREST (The Center for Responsible Travel), cruisers are loyal to cruising and loyal to one or more cruise line brands, but they are not loyal to any particular destination.
Time to Shift Focus
We must not continue blindly to acquiesce to the cruise sector that contributes only 10% of our tourism revenue at an immeasurable cost. We cannot get Little Stirrup Cay back; it will never be the same. We cannot get Gorda Cay back; it will never be the same. None of the islands or enclaves we lease or sell to cruise lines can ever be gotten back. They are forever changed. As desperate as we may be for the hope of employment, of a steady pay-cheque, a philanthropic handout or two by a cruise line, we cannot surrender our critical thinking as we plot the future of our tourism economy.
Right now, we are feeling the “Disney Effect,” a set of subjective assumptions based upon wishful outcomes rather than empirical evidence, but we must not look at the drama unfolding around Lighthouse Point without examining the larger picture. We Bahamians find ourselves in a watershed moment. Lighthouse Point is a Golden Goose, and there are very few others like her. We can either allow it to be sold to a cruise line and doom ourselves to the status quo, an upside-down tourism economy where 75% of our visitors contribute only 10% of our tourism dollars and Disney doubles its profits, or we can put the same Golden Goose to work for The Bahamas and Bahamian citizens, particularly Eleutherans. We can begin to steer our country towards more profitable models of tourism or we can spend the rest of our lives dreaming up ways in which to squeeze out a few more dollars from cruise passengers.
The stunning backdrop of Lighthouse Point holds the potential for us to create a flagship sustainable tourism destination that will serve as a model to spawn other similar right-size tourism projects throughout the islands. This model promises to retain profits within The Bahamas and to provide real and meaningful employment and ownership opportunities. The cruise industry holds a place in our tourism economy. It is a road already taken. But we do not need to continue approving private cruise ports at the expense of other, more profitable models of tourism.
Our priority must now be focused on improving the travel experience for the segment of our visitors that contribute the most to our country. Lighthouse Point and the model proposed by the Lighthouse Point Partners will attract the type of visitor we need, especially in the family islands. These visitors abhor high-volume, high-impact tourism and yearn for something more authentically Bahamian. If you are reading this piece while struggling to feed your family and feel you do not have the luxury to care about the environment or the preservation of Bahamian heritage, we understand. We ask only that proper attention be paid to the numbers because the numbers don’t lie, they don’t spin, they don’t obfuscate. It is an empirical fact that stop-over tourists spend around 20-25 times more than cruise tourists and those revenues remain in the country. We need to think critically about our tourism economy and make the right choices. Our future as a nation depends upon it.
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