Bahamas urged: ‘Go back into the tourism business’

• Architect: Nation must flip current model on its head

• ‘Residual’ cruise, resort dependence unsustainable

• Country must plug ‘three gaps’ for wealth return


Tribune Business Editor

[email protected]

A prominent architect is arguing that The Bahamas must “go back into the tourism business for itself” to reverse the “dramatic drop” in its competitiveness versus faster-growing rival Caribbean destinations.

Patrick Rahming, who has written two books on the subject, reiterated in a recent interview with Tribune Business that The Bahamas needs to effectively turn the present tourism model on its head if its citizens are to again become the major wealth creators and beneficiaries from the nation’s largest industry.

Renewing his call for The Bahamas to revert to the pre-1970s tourism model, he said the country is no longer in the tourism business itself or acting as a true destination but, instead, providing support and resources for those who and are enjoying the bulk of its earnings – mega resort destinations, such as Atlantis and Baha Mar, and the cruise ship industry.

As a result, The Bahamas was no longer “taking responsibility for getting customers into the destination” but had handed this obligation over to these players who were destinations/products in their own right. Of The Bahamas’ 7.2m visitors in 2019, Mr Rahming said the country could only claim that between 700,000 to 800,000 of this number were its own customers as the rest belonged to the mega resorts and cruise ships.

Asserting that Bahamians have largely been conditioned to accept employment, as opposed to wealth creation and ownership, when it came to the tourism industry, the well-known architect said the country started “to lose our customers” in the 1970s with the economy suffering from what he labelled as “three gaps” – lack of vision, unwillingness to participate in intellectual discussion, and a flawed business model.

This, Mr Rahming said, had let to “complete dependence on residual income from resort operators and the cruise industry”, which he branded an “unsustainable situation”. He added that it also explained why Bahamian tourism had seen relatively anemic growth in stopover visitor numbers over the past three decades, with the Dominican Republic and Cuba growing theirs eight-fold during the same period.

“In 1991, we had 1.42m stopover visitors. Jamaica had 1m, the Dominican Republic had 780,000 and Cuba had 450,000,” Mr Rahming told this newspaper. “By 2018 or thereabouts, Jamaica had moved to 2.3m, Cuba to 3.7m and the Dominican Republic, 6.4m. In the case of Jamaica, Jamaica had a 135 percent increase, but the other two were eight times’ what they previously had. We had 0.25 percent growth [sic] in the same period.”

While The Bahamas’ stopover visitor growth may have been slightly higher than allowed for by Mr Rahming, based on the 1.8m stopovers received in 2019, there is little doubt that rival Caribbean nations prior to COVID-19 had expanded at a much faster rate than this nation.

“We were not getting business anywhere near the rate of others in our region,” he added. If The Bahamas had enjoyed the same stopover growth rate as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Mr Rahming said it would now be attracting 11.4m visitors with a per capita average spend of $1,300 – equating to an $14.82bn annual economic injection.

“We’d be able to almost wipe out our national debt fairly quickly, and it would have untold benefits as far as the economy is concerned,” he told Tribune Business. “The thing that would have the most benefit is that by going back into business ourselves, we’d be creating local wealth as opposed to employment.

“For the last 40 years, our target – the main benefit we’ve been trying to achieve – is employment and not wealth creation. Given the model that we’ve developed, having a job is a safer bet than starting a business. We don’t want to encourage people to start a business as much as we want to tell them that we’re going to supply them with jobs. We’ve developed a risk averse country because we’ve been peddling the safety of a job.

“We need to recognise that residual income from serving other people who are in the tourism business could never be in the same economic vein as running our own tourism business. The fact that we ran out of our own customers in the 1970s, I don’t think there are very many people who understand how that happened. The implication is that we stopped having customers of our own and started relying on customers of the cruise ships and the resort.”

Mr Rahming’s argument is that The Bahamas will only maximise tourism’s economic benefits if it flips the script, or turns the present industry model upside down, and returns to something akin to the 1960s – when multiple Bahamian-owned restaurants, nightclubs and retailers, many located Over-the-Hill as well as on Bay Street – formed the core of activities and attractions enjoyed by tourists.

He argued that a lack of historical knowledge concerning this past, especially among Bahamians aged 50 years-old and younger, was contributing to what he describes as the “vision gap”. Mr Rahming wrote: “It recently came as a surprise to me that today’s 50 year-old has no concept of a successful tourism environment in The Bahamas, having been born during that era’s funeral.

“A decade before they were born, New Providence, for example, was dotted with successful nightclubs, some of them now legendary, like the Cat and Fiddle, the Silver Slipper, the Zanzibar, the Conch Shell, the Jungle Club, all owned and operated locally, mostly by black Bahamians.

“The same was true about attractions like the Nassau Seafloor Aquarium, Ardastra Gardens, the Son et Lumiere (Sound and Light Show) and wax museum at Fort Charlotte, Balmain and Bahamia Museums. Successful Over-the-Hill restaurants thrived, like the Three Queens, the Reef and the Shoal. Bay Street was lined with nightclubs and show clubs, restaurants – both Bahamian and international – and stores that sold both fine local product and European goods,{” he added.

“By 1980, all of this was gone. Today’s 50 year-old would have been eight. For anyone under 50 years-old, tourism reports are about occupancy rates, not local wealth development. For them promoting tourism is about subsidising airlines and resorts, and buying ads to tout our beautiful environment. It is not about operating a business for the benefit of the local business community.”

Besides age, Mr Rahming identifies the second cause of the so-called “vision gap” as the post-Independence view that saw tourism as being the operation of resorts. Politicians, he argued, did not bother to understand the business model left behind by the controversial Sir Stafford Sands. As a result, he argued that this resort-centric mindset persists today, as seen in the Grand Lucayan deal, rather than people, culture, heritage and other attributes being the product core.

“This new approach, which persists to today, has led governments to kowtow to the wishes and influence of resort and cruise ship operators,” Mr Rahming said. “Over the past five decades, The Bahamas has poured hundreds of millions of dollars (possibly billions) paying for the marketing and promotion of resorts, subsidising or purchasing failed projects, facilitating cruise operators with facilities and leases of prime property, with no visible benefit except employment.

“We have become experts in the activity of tourism but appear unaware that there is a business of tourism. The result has been the absolute demise of our tourism business under this flawed resort-based and cruise industry-based vision.” Mr Rahming said this failure was directly responsible for the “declining performance” and “dramatic drop” in The Bahamas’ tourism competitiveness compared to Caribbean rivals.

And he argued that the impact was worsened by “the persistence of a political culture that ensures commitment to obsolete or flawed concepts under the guise of ‘ideas’ rather than the result of true intellectual search and philosophical commitment”. The Bahamas, Mr Rahming said, was locked into the status quo because its leaders – especially in politics and government – refuse to embrace dissenting ideas or alternative viewpoints.

With dissenters frequently “silenced or humiliated”, he added: “So while the cruise lines and travel organisations all tell us that we lack sufficient product to function as a destination, we prefer to respond by spending more money on advertising and promotion, oblivious of the needs of the business model for the operation of a tourist destination.

“Without customers of our own, building attractions would be futile. They would simply die again, as they did in the 1970s. Our problem will not resolve itself without serious intellectual discussion in an environment where real change is both expected and welcome.”

Turning to the final “gap”, which he defined as the tourism model currently being employed, Mr Rahming said visitors were typically in search of unique experiences in a particular destination, with attractions that functioned much like a retail point-of-sale.

However, in The Bahamas’ case, he argued: “The model currently in use defines the customer as the customer of the resort or cruise ship, the product as sun, sand and sea and the personality of ‘the People’, the point-of-sale as the resort or the cruise ship. Infrastructure is defined as the facilities for transportation, and physical and financial support for cruise ships and resorts.

“This is a huge gap, and its mending requires a major paradigm shift and major policy changes. It would also require a significantly more focused strategy. This current model has led to a complete dependence on residual income from resort operators and cruise lines, an unsustainable economic situation…. Three gaps, each easily filled. Imagine the possibilities if we would address them immediately.”

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