Tourism is the largest industry in the world. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that the Travel & Tourism sector accounts for more than 9% of the global GDP. The economy of the Caribbean region, especially, developed through tourism which was a welcomed substitute for the colonial cash-crop economy. Undoubtedly, tourism has turned Antigua & Barbuda into one of the Caribbean’s most flourishing economies. It provides employment for our nationals, earns foreign exchange, provides revenue for our government, raises national income and has even promoted a consciousness of our culture and history. However, with the global economic crisis of 2008/2009, Antigua & Barbuda along with the rest of the Caribbean experienced major challenges and the tourist industry was by no means excluded.
Data from the Caribbean Tourism Organization reveal that Antigua & Barbuda had the most acute fall in the Tourism sector after Anguilla. Our visitor arrivals decreased significantly and as a result we had a downturn in our overall economy. Indeed, this event caused significant change to local and global markets; however, the ability to adjust and cope with this change is what our policy makers and regulators lacked.
According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism rebounded strongly from the economic crisis and the Caribbean returned to seasons of growth since the latter part of 2009; with arrivals of both air and cruise passengers growing faster than the expected rate. The Caribbean was ranked the 3rd fastest growing region of 2012, yet to this day our government still cries “recession”, global financial crisis” and “economic downturn”.
Other Caribbean countries have taken measures towards re-structuring and improving the sector as a result of the change in the economy. They have competitively priced tourism products; they have introduced and enhanced alternative forms of tourism; they have put in place necessary infrastructure and have ventured into new markets.
To date, the Caribbean has started to benefit from the South American market and countries like Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago have boosted their arrivals with direct flights from Brazil. Arrivals from Russia are rapidly increasing to islands like Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Jamaica has a direct flight to and from Moscow via Trans Aero Airlines. Over 97 million Chinese travelled in 2013, and this ethnic market has been showing an increase in travel activity since 2009. What percentile of this market did Antigua & Barbuda get? Guyana, Montserrat and even Haiti recorded double digit increases in their tourism economy last year. It is evident that our Caribbean brothers and sisters have made the necessary adjustments to bounce back from the crisis. What have we done?
We have failed to put in place necessary infrastructure to aid in a recovering tourism economy and as a result we had the 1,912-passenger cruise ship turn back from our port to dock instead in St. Maarten’s Phillipsburg. Has our harbour been swept? We have failed to competitively position ourselves by increasing the departure tax in 2010. We have failed to encourage creativity by failing to implement alternative forms of tourism, as we still manage this industry with outdated policies. We have failed to conduct the necessary market research to discover emerging markets. Instead, we increased our scheduled flights out of Canada which yielded no notable increase in the number of Canadians travelling to our destination. They are travelling to the Dominican Republic.
Interestingly, Antigua & Barbuda with the global recession of the 1970’s and 1980’s, managed to increase tourist arrivals with double digits between 1978 -1988. Could it be then that our issue is not a recession, but an administration that has failed us?
And in this, not only did they fail, but they have given us a chance for rebirth. We will ascend higher and rise stronger. This is our time to return to the best of what this country’s tourism was- the tourism that built this country, and we will build it once again.