Life After COVID: Rethinking Tourism

Resurgence: This series of essays curated by the National Cultural Foundation’s Literary Arts Officer, Karra Price, features the thoughts and commentaries of Barbadians immersed in various aspects of daily endeavour.  

This essay takes a critical look at the tourism industry, which was adversely affected by the pandemic.  It reflects, investigates and looks optimistically towards future possibilities. 

As we reflect on all that we have experienced in the past two and a half years, it seems almost inconceivable that twelve months ago we had navigated the pandemic, an apocalyptic-like ash fall, a freak lightning storm and, as if that unholy trinity wasn’t enough, a destructive hurricane.

With every day that passes, we are increasingly confident that we are leaving the past two and a half years in our rear-view mirror.  Yet if we believe in signs, we have been given clear ones that there will be no return to normalcy.

The world has changed and if tourism as an industry is to survive, we too will need to change.  We can no longer operate in the ways that we have always done.  Given all that we have been through, and as we chart the way forward, we must be prepared to do the hard work necessary to change this industry for the better.

Tourism continues to be one of the most important sectors both globally and locally.  Globally it is credited with providing one in ten jobs and an estimated ten percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).  In Barbados, those numbers are even more significant with the sector being the second largest employer and contributing over seventeen percent of GDP.  The entire Caribbean region is rated as one of the most tourism dependent in the world.

This is a double-edged sword.  The benefits of tourism are many and the contribution it has made to the development of the region is indisputable.  The Organisation of American States proposes that “the most important economic feature of activities related to the tourism sector is that they contribute to three high-priority goals of developing countries: the generation of income, employment, and foreign-exchange earnings. In this respect, the tourism sector can play an important role as a driving force of economic development.”

However, on the flip side, the pressure tourism places on the environment and local communities can counteract its many positives if not managed correctly.  We all know that tourism has been cited for its significant carbon footprint due to the resources needed to transport and house the hundreds of millions of people who participate globally in the industry annually. The cruise, accommodation and aviation subsectors of the industry have all been forced to confront these concerns.

Barbados is now a very mature tourism destination.  To get a perspective on exactly how mature, consider that as far back as the 17th and 18th Century Barbados was one of the most metropolitan and commercially important colonies of the British Empire, and welcomed a significant number of visitors to its shores.  With the realisation of the tremendous health benefits of our natural climate, through to the evolution of Barbados as a luxury beach vacation spot for the rich and famous, tourism has remained central to Barbados’ story.

As we look towards the future it is important to recognise that we must have greater control and input into the direction of industry, and by extension, our country.  Life in a post pandemic world should not simply fall into the social and economic patterns that existed before. While much of the development of the industry has been organic, i.e. based on adjusting and adapting to the situations at hand, our new direction must be purposeful in the recognition that this industry can only serve us well if it serves us sustainably.

The United Nations Environment Program and United Nations World Tourism Organization  define sustainable tourism as that which “takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

This is how Barbados must develop its industry as we emerge and resurge from the pandemic.  Tourism must balance the needs of our people, our society, our environment and our economy. These four elements must be harmonized and balanced to ensure the greatest benefit to the entire country. As we seek to build a stronger tourism industry, we cannot do so without reference to the very things that sustain this industry and without a plan for ensuring that they remain viable. Imbalance in global approaches to development is one reason that tourism dependent countries have been extremely vociferous in their calls for the industry to become more sustainable.

As the world emerged from COVID, when the industry was at its lowest, even the most popular destinations in the world used the moment to rethink what was described as the tourism monoculture.

In a July 2020 article, the New York Times noted that for many tourism-reliant destinations “the crisis creates an opportunity to make future travel to and in their cities and regions more sustainable. This crossroads is sparking conversations on how to make tourism less taxing and more beneficial on urban infrastructure and for its local inhabitants.”

Barbados and its residents were a part of this global inflection point.  We, too, were dealing with difficult questions around our tourism economy.  Like many tourism-reliant countries, during the darkest moments of the pandemic, we grappled with the question of whether it continued to make sense for our island to be so heavily dependent on it.  Was it a good idea to continue to pin all of our hopes on what was now being perceived  by many to be a fragile, and even fickle, industry?

As business resumes, Barbadians have welcomed tourists back with the warmth and friendliness which has always characterized our industry and remains one of our key branding planks.  Tourism here is proving what it has proven each time it has faced a crisis: it is strong and resilient, powered as it is by a strong and resilient people.  In our post pandemic world, tourism continues to offer many benefits including access to opportunity.  We, therefore, must focus on how to make it even more robust and responsive to the needs of the people it serves.  We must ensure that we make tourism more sustainable for the benefit of all.

Since Barbados has used tourism as a vehicle to transform a small colony into a leading small island republic, I am confident that, as we confront these latest challenges, tourism will continue to be a major tine in a multi-pronged and multisectoral economic strategy by providing a mechanism to propel us to the next level of growth. Retaining the core values that brought us this far will be pivotal to our success.

However, we cannot rest on our laurels, comfortably reminiscing about past successes as our competitors overtake us.  Now we must approach the industry with renewed vigour and passion to recommit ourselves to hard work and action; to retool, refine, reform and revive Barbados in ways that we are yet to discover.

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