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Bahamian tourism is “starving” because it has both failed to develop a unique product, a well-known architect believes, and not invested in creating key “attractions”.
Pat Rahming, of Pat Rahming & Associates, told Tribune Business that while the Bahamas had potential tourism product “coming out of its ears”, much of it was “locked away in a warehouse with three padlocks on it”.
And he explained that rather than focus on developing one-of-a-kind ‘attractions’, the Bahamas had instead concentrated the bulk of its tourism investments in the infrastructure that supported them - accommodation (hotels) and transportation.
Pointing to the “dilapidated” state of Nassau’s few land-based attractions, such as the forts and Water Tower, Mr Rahming likened Bahamian tourism to a shop with little inventory on its shelves.
Arguing that ‘attractions’ were the equivalent of tourism’s “cash register”, Mr Rahming said of these shortcomings: “That’s why we’re losing our shirts, and other people are eating our lunch.”
His thoughts offer a new perspective on why some believe the Bahamas’ tourism competitiveness is slip-sliding away, a perception reinforced by a Tribune Business report last week.
This newspaper reported that stopover visitors’ share of total foreign arrivals to the Bahamas had slipped from around 31-32 per cent pre-recession to around 24-25 per cent for the past four years. In raw terms, this means that high yielding stopover visitors (spending over $1,000 per head) have declined from one out of every three visitors to one out of every four.
Recalling how he arrived at his conclusions, Mr Rahming said he first began attending the annual American Parks and Attractions convention some 17-18 years ago.
Becoming a regular attendee every November, he explained: “The key was that I learned through that organisation that the business of tourism, the members of that organisation were the people that drove the business of tourism globally.
“At the various seminars and workshops, I came to understand why our business was floundering, what we were doing and perhaps ought not to be doing.”
Although he failed to convince Ministry of Tourism officials to accompany him to that convention, Mr Rahming said he learnt that all tourists - wherever they were in the world - were seeking unique Place-specific Experiences.
This, he told Tribune Business, could be delivered through a variety of products - place, history, mythology and lifestyle. New York and Miami were lifestyle destinations; London was a historical destination; Athens was steeped in ancient mythology; and unique places included the likes of Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
Downtown Nassau was once, Mr Rahming said, the place-specific destination that Spanish Wells, Hope Town and Green Turtle Cay were now. Yet the fundamental flaw was that the Bahamas still had to properly define its tourism product (Place-specific experience).
Noting that the Bahamas represented Christopher Columbus’s first port of call in the Western Hemisphere in 1492, Mr Rahming told Tribune Business: “Someone looking for a warm weather destination, sun, sand and sea, has half the world available to him, but the guy looking for the spot where contemporary civilisation started has only one choice.
“We are the genesis of all contemporary Americans, the Bahamas. Isn’t that incredible? This is why it becomes so important to the business of tourism. We have product coming out of our ears, but it’s all locked away with three padlocks on it.”
In contrast, Mr Rahming said the Dominican Republic had chosen in 1991 to focus on Columbus as an attraction, changing the focus of its tourism product.
It had also concentrated on golf, these two moves explaining why its stopover visitor numbers had increased by 109.8 per cent in the nine years up to 2000. Cuba’s growth over the same period was 318.4 per cent, yet the Bahamas’ growth remained in low double digits.
Unlike New Orleans with its ‘Voodo’ aura, Mr Rahming said the Bahamas had never exploited its ‘Obeah’ mythology. “This is one of the few places you can go where there isn’t a church tour,” he added.
And, while aspects of the Bahamian diet and lifestyle were unique, this nation paid “so little attention to it” as part of the tourism product.
“The position is that we have product coming out of our ears, but we are losing business because we have no product,” Mr Rahming told Tribune Business. “This is why we are losing our shirts, people are eating our lunch.”
This, he added, was exacerbated by the Bahamas misunderstanding where the tourism ‘Point of Sale’ or cash register was located. It was not located in hotels, transportation or hospitality, which were supporting infrastructure, but attractions.
Mr Rahming said there were five types of attraction - traditional tours; retail (the Straw Market); events (the Super Bowl); infrastructure; and resorts.
He described the latter as “the most misunderstood in our neck of the woods”. Bahamians generally believed resorts were a hotel with a few facilities, but Mr Rahming argued it was the other way around - a resort was an attraction with accommodation as the supporting facility.
Pointing to Atlantis as a water-based theme park attraction, Mr Rahming told Tribune Business: “Atlantis is an attraction, but it has accommodation.
“They understand that, and you never hear an Atlantis executive call Atlantis a hotel. But you’ll hear us call it a hotel because we don’t understand.”
The result of this misunderstanding, Mr Rahming said, was that “the only investment for the tourism business is on accommodation, and this isn’t helping us.
“If you look at New Providence, you will see all our attractions are in trouble. We have few tours, and by any definition of tourism we have very few land-based attractions. What we have are dilapidated or in bad shape,” he told Tribune Business.
“That’s the product we are selling. We have the Ministry of Tourism going out to bring customers in, but we have very little inventory on the shelves, and what is on the shelves is not selling. That’s why our lunch is being eaten by other people.”
Focusing on Freeport, Mr Rahming said the strategy of concentrating on casino and hotel operators was entirely misplaced. “In their case there is absolutely nothing on the shelf, nothing whatsoever,” he told Tribune Business.
“We have product coming out of our ears. This destination, the Bahamas, is the most gifted community on the planet, 350,000 people. You put us against any other community in the world, we have more champions per capita. Why are we starving?
“It’s about the fact the shop is open and there’s very little on the shelf. You can’t make money without stuff on the shelf.”
Going back to the retail analogy, Mr Rahming said the industry’s ‘first rule’ was that if there was something to sell, it had to be easy to buy. The second was that if you were selling something the competition could sell, price would inevitably drive sales.
This was the situation Bahamian tourism now found itself in, a price-driven competition, due to the absence of a unique product and associated attractions.