They Sell You Atmosphere
By “Awake!” correspondent in Trinidad
THROUGHOUT the earth there are many emerging nations, including a number of small islands or groups of them. Most of the islands are agricultural, and some have a one-crop economy—or did until recently. With a small total income, the problem is to find sufficient revenue to keep the ship of state afloat.
If you held an important office in one of these new nations, what would you do to solve the problem? Would it not be a pleasant experience to discover that you had a natural resource that was in demand and could be tailored to suit the size of the particular island? Would it not be gratifying to find that the commodity could be retained after “selling” it, and that it could be “sold” over and over again? That has been the experience of many of the Caribbean islands.
A Product That Can Be Resold
On nearly all the islands of the Caribbean are to be found the “ingredients” that make up this remarkable “commodity”: a mixture of sand, sea, air and, of course, the tropical sun. These are combined to form delightful beaches and resort areas. Whether one views these vistas for the first time or many times, the experience is very pleasant and enjoyable: swimming in the clear, blue-green water with a beach of sand as white and fine as salt; an early morning drive along sandy beaches, fringed with coconut palms—every breath of pollution-free air being a pleasure.
Government officials have come to realize the income potential of this atmosphere, and so have entered enthusiastically into the business of selling tourists the beauties of their country. It is big business in a number of the islands. Even Palm or Prune Island, a mere speck of 110 acres in the Grenadines, has its resort cabanas and airstrip. The head of a tourism consulting firm was quoted in the Trinidad Express of October 3, 1970, as believing that tourism could most effectively reduce unemployment and lift living standards in developing nations.
Merchandising the Product
Puerto Rico and Jamaica have built up a large tourist industry over the years. Now the smaller islands are working hard to get a share of the business. Tourist boards have been set up by the various governments. Hotels, airlines, steamship companies and other businesses are greatly interested in inducing more persons to visit their nation’s shores. Advertising is done in magazines, by radio, TV and many other ways. New York city subway riders could read a prominent sign in 1969 that said: ‘Visit the unheard-of Caribbean.’
Here in the Caribbean the tourist season runs from December to April. So, steamship lines organize winter cruises, which are quite successful and give the passengers a chance to see many ports on the various islands and the South American mainland. Airlines too line up “package deals” whereby a group can travel together on a certain itinerary and stay at certain hotels. Large numbers will travel on an excursion ticket and break their flight a number of times in order to visit several islands. Then too a group may charter an entire plane for a certain flight. There are, for instance, many chartered flights and also cruise ships that visit Trinidad so that their passengers may see the annual two-day Carnival, the high point of the tourist season in Trinidad.
Tourists must have a place to stay, and so the hotel industry and related guesthouse business continue to expand to accommodate the increasing flow of passengers to the islands. The governments themselves become hotelkeepers. In Barbados and Trinidad, as well as elsewhere, the government either owns or has a controlling interest in hotels. The multiplying of hotels and guesthouses goes on all the time as the business of selling atmosphere increases.
Is It Worth While?
“Yes! Definitely!” replies the public relations officer of the Barbados Tourist Board. He explains that in a small island where sugar was the economy for decades and where the very life of the people was tied in with the sugar interests, the tourist industry has now become the major money-maker. In 1968, for the first time, the gross income from tourism exceeded that from sugar. Records show that the number of visitors to Barbados increased from 44,000 in 1962 to over 137,000 in 1969. Yes, tourism provides bread and butter in many a Barbadian home these days.
In Grenada the officials seemed to say “Yes—maybe” to the above question. There is no doubt that tourism is a major, if not the major, source of foreign currency for the country, and that the amount of revenue is increasing rapidly. One official pointed out, however, that a considerable outlay of capital to bring in luxury items for the tourists cuts down on the net profit of tourism. Then, too, there is a tendency that discontent may arise on the part of the poor native when he sees the great difference between his station in life and that of the foreigner. In Barbados, however, it was asserted that this was no real point of argument against the tourist industry, since many islanders travel abroad these days and see for themselves the standards of living elsewhere and develop some expensive tastes themselves.
Until recently the tourist dollar has not been sought as vigorously in Trinidad as in some of the other islands, particularly Barbados. Since Trinidad is favored with being a principal oil producer in the Commonwealth and so reaps a rich revenue from petroleum products and also has other substantial industries, she has not been inclined to woo tourists. Yet today tourism is the third-largest source of foreign currency. Special emphasis has been placed on the tourist industry in Tobago, Trinidad’s smaller sister island.
Hazards in the Business
As with any other commercial venture, there are hazards in the business of selling atmosphere. The commodity, the lovely island atmosphere, must be preserved and maintained. For these reasons stability of government is a must. Just let a rumor of trouble or revolution start and Mr. Tourist makes a speedy exit.
This happened in Trinidad and Tobago in April 1970. There were violent demonstrations and an effort to bring down the government. Foreigners were insulted and assaulted. In Tobago the hotels and resorts were invaded and guests mistreated. In a few days those hotels were almost deserted. Visitors to Trinidad fell off at least one fourth. It was months before the flow of visitors became normal once more. Hotel construction came to a stop, or nearly so, for a time. Construction on the new waterfront Holiday Inn ceased in Port of Spain, and only in September 1971 was it resumed.
Currency instability and unemployment are factors to worry about in the tourist business. The recent crisis of the American dollar and the rise in unemployment in the United States and Canada have curtailed many a vacation to the Caribbean in the last few months. These are the two main countries from which the islands receive visitors, and so any drop in the number of persons coming to the islands is a grave threat to the revenue derived from the tourists. Efforts are now being made to attract tourists from Scandinavia via the SAS airline and also from South America, particularly Venezuela.
With the advent of the 747 airplane and reductions in fares to Europe, many who formerly came south from the United States and Canada now fly east to Europe. This too has been a threat to the tourist industry in the Caribbean and no completely successful plan to remedy the situation has yet been produced. Charter flights have helped some.
A hazard to the industry is the treatment accorded to Mr. and Mrs. Tourist during their stay. Word-of-mouth advertising can be fairly potent. If anyone is mistreated or overcharged or robbed, certainly a good word would hardly be forthcoming from such an outraged tourist. Tourist boards recognize this and try to please their customers. The man on the street may, however, have a different view. Many consider a tourist fair game in trying to relieve him of as much cash or property as possible. Taxi fares can be exorbitant, as can some hotel charges. Trinket and souvenir sellers abound and sometimes sell little of any real value. Watches and jewelry sold on the streets are no bargain.
Moreover, there are many alert eyes, watching, watching. Let a tourist be careless with his possessions and they will take wings—a camera, binoculars, watch or wallet should always be well guarded if an experience that can mar a vacation is to be avoided. The first time the writer visited a beach in Trinidad many years ago he went home barefoot. He left his shoes in a vulnerable place, and they were promptly appropriated. These are the things that those who sell tourism try to avoid, with some measure of success.
Problems and hazards notwithstanding, the promoters of tourism are optimistic over the future of the industry and are vigorously pressing ahead with plans for expansion. Just recently the Hotel Hilton in Trinidad completed a large addition of 181 rooms. Several hotels and guesthouses are being planned or constructed in Tobago. This pattern is about the same in the other islands. Barbados is making plans to be ready for the jumbo jet 747 flights in the future and so anticipates many more tourists in the coming months.
Travel agents are brought into the area by the various tourist boards in get-acquainted tours to promote greater interest from abroad. One goal is to get a high level of visitors all the year around and so avoid to a large extent a peak and an off season. This would allow much better use of hotel space. Conventions are being sought to bring in large groups of visitors. A convention center has been set up in Trinidad with an eye to attracting more of this kind of business.
A different kind of viewpoint has been developed in Trinidad toward the tourist. Formerly there was the aim to provide “a home away from home” for the tourist, giving him the same kind of food as at home and making him feel that he was in familiar surroundings. This has been expensive and not too successful. Now the aim is to get the visitors to see the country—its bird sanctuary, its pitch lake, its rain forest and its people of many national origins. Let them see some of the local activities and handicraft. Let them listen to a steel band, watch the limbo dance, hear some calypsos. Instead of steak and onions, they can try some crab and calalu or some cabbage palm salad or a chicken pelau. In this way the visitor realizes that he is not home but is learning something firsthand of how his neighbors live in other lands. This is already having a measure of success with many tourists who say they have fallen in love with the island.
For those who want to get away or who desire a change of pace for a time, the tourist boards have something to sell. It is something that benefits the local economy and population. And the customer receives atmosphere that can be soothing and delightful.