Saturday, June 29, 2013

Increasing Jamaica's tourism competitiveness

EACH time I am away, I can't help but do a comparison between the country I visit and Jamaica. In particular, I always look at the main industry of the country and contrast it against Jamaica, if it is an industry that Jamaica competes in also.

Over the past few days, a delegation from Jamaica participated in a Caribbean Growth Forum, which was put on by the IDB in conjunction with partners such as the World Bank. The forum's focus was to look at what can be done to enhance the economic growth potential of the Caribbean region. The forum was opened by the Prime Minister of Bahamas, and included significant participation from government ministers from Trinidad, Bahamas, Barbados, and other islands, and included the governor of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, president of the IDB, and other senior financial players within the region and even as far as Canada. Of note, Jamaica did not have any government participation, with the exception of Colin Bullock from the Planning Institute of Jamaica.

Tourists sunbathe along a beach in Nassau, Bahamas. (PHOTO: AP)

The discussions which happened offline, resulted in financing opportunities for small and medium-sized companies, in particular, that everyone was keen to be a part of.

I will discuss this, and some other elements of the forum, in later articles, as I want now to make a comparison between tourism in Nassau against Jamaica. Nassau, with a population of only 180,000, and which has to import water, and is much more expensive than Jamaica, has much larger hotels and is humming with tourist activity. The type of activity seen is a distant memory of what I remember used to happen in Jamaica.

The irony of this is that as far as I am concerned the overall hotel experience in Jamaica is ahead of that where I stayed in Nassau. Especially if it is compared with Sandals (which I think is the best hotel experience in Jamaica) but even when compared to the other hotels such as RIU and Sunset Resorts.

The advantages Jamaica have include service levels (our people are more natural when it comes to delivering service) and the operations management at the Jamaican hotels (especially Sandals) is way ahead of the Bahamas experience. The people in Bahamas are very nice, but the service side is not as natural as it is in Jamaica. This is compounded by the poor operations management of the hotel. I don't think the physical infrastructure experience of the Bahamas hotel is superior than the Jamaica experience, but the food in Jamaica is much better.

The number of attractions in Jamaica is also much more, and as far as I am concerned much more attractive. One unique thing about Jamaica also is that we have a very unique culture, and our music and sports, are far more appealing than most other tourist destinations in the world, including Bahamas.

Why then does Nassau seem to have so much tourist activity going on, and certainly more than what you would see at a Jamaican hotel. It certainly is not that our local players are not competitive and creative, because as far as I am concerned, our local tourist players have done wonders, given the lack of environmental support for the tourism product.

The main problem is that tourism service delivery is primarily within the hotel, and is not supported well by the country. It is not that people do not realise the value of tourism to Jamaica, but outside of the players in the industry, the country still has not realised what true tourism delivery is.

So we continuously seek to reduce our competitive edge in tourism, in various ways. And these are the advantages that somewhere like Bahamas has over us, and why the average spend from their tourist is higher than ours.

These include better infrastructure, such as roads, and the fact that everywhere in the Bahamas is clean. In Jamaica when you drive outside of the property you are confronted with a filthy environment, tourist harassment, touts on the beaches, high taxes (in Bahamas there is no income or consumption taxes), and general indiscipline on the roads. In addition to these challenges, we also have allowed our beaches to be degraded because of our poor environmental management, unlike the Bahamas where the beaches are pristine.

This is why an all-inclusive room sells for US$250 double occupancy in Jamaica, while a similar room in Bahamas or Miami sells for US$300 or more just for the bed. If you need internet access, meals, or entertainment you pay additional. In other words we are quickly eroding our comparative advantage in tourism because of poor management.

What we must understand is that a country's comparative advantage is not static and changes based on what other countries are doing, so we need to constantly innovate and properly manage our existing comparative advantage. And it is important that, while we still have a comparative advantage in tourism, we take care of it.

It is necessary for us to ensure that not only the hip strip in Montego Bay looks good, but it must extend to downtown Montego Bay. We must enforce litter laws and ensure that proprietors maintain a certain standard in terms of how their properties look. We must ensure that there is discipline on the roads and must not have so many peddlars in the streets. Tourists, and residents, must also feel safe to walk on the road at any time during the night.

It is these things that matter for tourism, and irrespective of how much more you can offer, if you cannot offer a peaceful and restful vacation then you will not be competitive. Having to lock away tourists is not a vacation. It is an adventure, and that is not what people want to do on their vacations. This is why in Bahamas another vibrant activity you see are the number of buses carrying people on tours. And we have much more to show but do not have that sort of activity.

So if we are really serious about tourism, then we must act on the things that matter and ensure that our time is not preoccupied with matters not related to development.


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