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Tourism as a development strategy

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

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November 27 - 29, 2017 will go down as that brief period in Jamaica's development history when the country appeared as a serious player — not the proverbial third world basket case that it is often portrayed to be — on the world's economic stage. It will be remembered as the date when the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) conference on sustainable tourism convened at the Montego Bay Conference Centre.

The conference was impressive for its global reach; over 1,500 delegates, with close to 150 countries represented.But, in the year 2017, voted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 4, 2015 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development, it is the theme, with an emphasis on jobs and inclusive growth, that bore the greatest significance and held out the greatest promise for tourism dependent economies like Jamaica.

Nobody understands better than our Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett, who is deserving of kudos for bringing this once in a lifetime conference to our shores, the significance this turn in tourism development holds for the wider economy. The key areas being highlighted in International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development speak directly to those issues, which are central to Jamaica's development agenda and sustainable economic growth. These include: social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction; cultural values, diversity and heritage; environment protection and climate change, and peace and security.

When Prime Minister Andrew Holness addressed the conference, he spoke with moral authority about the Government having established a Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, having established zones of special operations with the intention to also address deep-rooted social problems, having passed the Financial Inclusiveness Policy and, more recently, having taken the bold legislative move to ban mining within the defined areas of the Cockpit Country.

I need, though, to be convinced that there is anything close to a national consensus concerning the degree to which tourism is the key to unlocking the vice-like grip of poverty, crime and violence on Jamaica's potential to “increase in beauty, fellowship and prosperity and to play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race”. Even from within the ranks of the Government there is this tendency to apologise for the success of tourism; to speak as if tourism being the dominant sector or industry in the economy puts the country's future at risk. This is the feeling I got when I read the headline in the Friday, October 26, 2017 edition of the Jamaica Observer, 'Jamaica must diversify beyond tourism — Shaw'. The story covered remarks made by Finance Minister Audley Shaw to the Caribbean Business Report while attending the Commonwealth finance ministers meeting in Guyana.

At the risk of taking Minister Shaw's comments out of context, the country and the region have a prophylactic relationship with tourism; there is lip service that falls short of full commitment to raising tourism to the level of development strategy. It's treated like the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg — given as a present to a poor man who promptly kills, cooks and eats it for Christmas dinner. Nothing exemplifies this lack of understanding and, frankly, ignorance of tourism's role in national economic development more than Antigua's Prime Minister Gaston Browne's much-publicised diatribe attacking the Sandal's brand for allegedly receiving illegal tax breaks from the previous Government.

We evangelicals are fond of saying in our worship services that it's time to have stop playing church in Jamaica; it's time to stop playing tourism. Breaking the four-million mark in stop-over visitors this year, although a significant milestone, is only the appetiser. The main course is yet to be served. Jamaica is famous for doing a little bit of everything. The diversification strategy, of which Minister Shaw speaks, taken to its absurd limits, has created a country of samples. Doing the useful many while avoiding the vital few things.

There are a number of factors that recommend tourism for elevation to being the hub of Jamaica's economic development. Tourism is a multi-trillion US dollar global industry that grows five to 10 per cent year over year. Tourism allows us the opportunity to live the mantra of the early years of globalisation: Think global, act local. Being a largely locally produced and delivered product, tourism has a significant multiplier effect in the local economy while earning foreign exchange as if it were a major export product. The significant risk takers in tourism are Jamaicans, which is a compelling reason for foreign brands to invest in Jamaica. And, most importantly, we cannot significantly grow tourism without solving those problems that are of most concern to Jamaicans so the two go hand in hand.

Arguably, the most reported statement coming out of the conference was the assertion by UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai that, “With regard to community involvement and internal agenda, there need be no walls between the visitor and the community.” Some took this as a slap in the face of the all-inclusive concept. I would have been ecstatic if the most reported statement was the already known fact enunciated by Chris Lehane, head of global policy and communications at Airbnb, that Trench Town is the most requested Jamaican destination by online vacation seekers.

There is no better example of the power of tourism to reach beyond the wall of the all-inclusive to impact communities than the Butch Stewart-controlled, Sandals Resorts-owned Island Routes Caribbean Adventures, which is helping community tourism ventures such as JaMIN Tours in Trench Town, through a strategic partnership, to develop the standards and enter the tourism main stream towards getting a piece of the expanding pie for communities and people at the base of the economic pyramid.

One of the speakers at the conference, Eduardo Fayor-Sola, International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University, said, “Caribbean governments must be prepared to make game-changing decisions at the risk of major opposition, if they are to remain relevant in the global tourism market.” I agree. We have to start by changing the mindset that went into the development of the National Industrial Policy (NIP), April 25, 1996. The NIP commits what, in hindsight, are two cardinal sins. One is its reference to tourism sector, instead of tourism industry. There is a difference. Sector leads to a preoccupation with policy. Industry connotes business and business begs for a strategy. We need a strategy to position tourism in a strategic development role. A second sin of NIP is, in its identification of five clusters, it lists tourism (along with entertainment and sports) as one among equals, instead of the hub around which the others — services, technology, agriculture, and manufacture, revolve. I know my economist friends have their long knives drawn out of distress at what sounds like a recommendation to move to a mono-economy. But I am ready to put up a stout defence.

hmorgan@cwjamaica.com

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