Tourism: The Way Forward
Iended an earlier column with these words: “This discussion may also be a good way to start the New Year (2019), instead of wasting time with nonsensical matters that have no bearing on jobs and social services.” This was in reference to my view that the people of Saint Lucia must pursue a cost/benefit analysis of the tourism industry calculated over the past twenty years or so, as we approach 40 years of independence. The recent statement by someone who ought to know, offering reasons for the closure of a fairly well-established hotel in the Reduit Beach area of Gros Islet, prompted my reaction to the issue of concessions to the tourism industry, including tax holidays and other important government incentives.
I begin with the back story. As a young parliamentarian who had emerged from the progressive grouping of the early 1970s known as the St. Lucia Forum, my views on tourism had been gleaned from several in-depth discussions among the wellread and intelligent members of the group. We believed then, and I still hold the view today, that the local tourism industry should be structured, promoted and supported by the government of Saint Lucia so that hotel ownership, ground transportation, international advertising, food and drink supplies are owned and managed mainly by the people. In other words, our vision was the construction of a tourism industry wherein the people of Saint Lucia, from every strata of the society, would own a stake in the industry from top to bottom.
It is important to recall that the St. Lucia Forum had also agreed there ought to be established at least two or three large international hotels on the island that would promote Saint Lucia as an important international player/ destination, giving it name recognition, even as it laid emphasis on local, mom-and- pop cottage tourism industry. With name recognition, we believed there would be increasing flows into the economy from every aspect of the industry, including food production. Having made that determination, we were (and I am today) still convinced that the tourism industry must be modelled so that the Saint Lucia product is unique and sought after. To his credit, Prime Minister John Compton reduced the room count to ten that qualified for government incentives. That number was later reduced to six rooms. Today, Air BnB uses the room services of any person with a middle class home and one available room that meets its standard for short-term letting/ renting. It bears repeating that we must undertake a cleareyed, in-depth and professional cost/benefit analysis in the local tourism industry. This may be the best gift we give ourselves as we mark 40 years of independence. The downside of the Forum cottage tourism idea today, is that with Air BnB the business organisers pocket the profits that should have gone to local house/room ownership.
As we continue to map the road ahead for the immediate improvement of Hewanorra airport, and the design and construction of a major four-lane highway between Hewanorra and Gros Islet (including to Soufriere and Castries), it is as good a time as any to renew our vision of the entire tourism industry and the increasing role the people of Saint Lucia must play in this fast-growing and important industry. If we have learnt anything from the mistakes of the past and from those of other developing countries, it is that we must constantly monitor and measure the plans and programmes to achieve our stated goals. As we look forward to 2019 and beyond, we need to continue engaging men and women of proven knowledge and experience to shoulder the work of building a more solid economic and social future. This may therefore be the best time to review in as simple and constructive a manner as possible the inner workings of the tourism industry, and how that may be improved to spread more benefits in the Saint Lucia economy.
Any new thrust must be aimed to deliberately put in the hands of Saint Lucians the control of the commanding heights of the national economy. In other words, we need to take time right now to examine in-depth what we have given up for the development of tourism on the island. How our tax incentives have justified our investments in tourism is an urgent question after 40 years of political independence. The availability of lower paid jobs alone within the industry will not cut it. It’s time to point to more top management appointments such as chefs and accountants in the larger hotels on the island.