July 5, 20205 minute read
With Barbados on the brink of reopening its international borders to commercial passenger traffic after the national shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth reminding that our two main tourism source markets—the US and the UK—remain in a state of chaos.
This moment shows us—again—that tourism is an unreliable industry on which to build our entire economy. Even during good years, tourism activity fluctuates enormously. During low season, tourist arrivals are 45% lower than during peak tourist season.
This means that employment in tourism is also very volatile. Large numbers of workers become unemployed or underemployed during the low season. Worse still, tourism is a very low-paying industry. It is the second-lowest paying industry on average according to data from the Barbados Survey of Living Conditions 2016. Tourism often leaves a lot of Barbadians in working poverty without stable jobs.
At present, the Barbados Statistical Service estimates that around 13% of Barbadians with jobs are employed in hotels and restaurants. And the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism indirectly accounts for another 20% of Barbados’ jobs. This means that we are heavily dependent on an unreliable and low-wage industry.
Tourism, as presently structured, is a highly inequitable industry. From 2009 to 2018, accommodation and food services (the tourism part of our economy) grew by 17%. The rest of the economy shrank by 3.5% in that time. To whom did these gains from tourism accrue? Research by Professor Troy Lorde and Dr Tennyson Joseph says:
“Data collected on hotels for the comparable period in 2017 indicates that hotel ownership in Barbados is very concentrated. There was an estimated 4728 rooms available in traditional hotels. Of these, 47% are held by 8 owners. Ownership is predominantly white.”
The harsh truth is that our tourism industry was never designed to share the benefits fairly. The majority of the benefits accrue to a privileged few, while most workers remain poorly paid and vulnerable. Growth in the tourism industry—while seemingly good for the economy—perpetuates the cycle of inequality.
So how do we build a fairer and more resilient economy?
The answer to “how do we build resilience?” is almost always diversification. But diversification is a tricky matter and can be a double-edged sword for a small country. I’ll explain.
It appears that being a small country, all we can do is to try to find the right balance between economies of scale and diversification.
This approach assumes that we cannot change our small size. But size is actually something we can fix! Barbados can accommodate many more people. If Barbados housed as many people per square kilometre as London, we could accommodate a whopping 2.5 million people.
That’s obviously an extreme example, but consider the benefits of increasing our population even just a little. With more people, we are less constrained in our choice between diversification and economies of scale. As our size increases, we can achieve economies of scale across a diversified number of industries. This is one fundamental method of building economic resilience.
Immigration is the most obvious way to increase our population in a short space of time. But typically immigration requires there to be jobs available in your country—a luxury which we do not presently have. We may need a different kind of immigration—the type of immigration that not only brings people, but also skills, ideas, business, and even jobs.
Fascinatingly, the need for immigration coincides perfectly with an activity that we’ve been doing all along: tourism! The underlying principle is the same—bringing people into your country for an experience. The difference between the two is simply the length of time they stay. With traditional tourism, we invite people in to stay for a bit. With immigration, we want to invite people to become Barbadians. What better way to share our love of life?
A new “lifestyle” model of tourism would shake inequality to its core. No longer would we waste taxpayers dollars supporting hotels and restaurants that operate in their own little silo. Instead, we could share the gains from our beautiful island equitably by embedding our permanent tourists into our daily lifestyle. They would shop where we shop, eat where we eat, live life like us, and become one of us.
We find ourselves at a critical juncture. We need to diversify, and we need to restructure a volatile and vulnerable industry that works for only a few of us. Barbados’ natural advantages make tourism a smart choice—like Michael Jordan choosing basketball. But it can no longer be business as usual. We require a fundamentally new model for tourism—one that is not even tourism at all. One where we share the joy of being Barbadian with newcomers. One where we freely share in the gains from our country’s natural beauty. One where we open our hearts and minds, and welcome those who would share our love of life.