Thursday 18 April, 2019

Browne must pay more attention to Antigua’s tourism product - Jones

Angus Jones is calling on the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda to make a greater effort to attract high quality investments to help bolster the country’s tourism product.

Below is his submitted letter:

"It should not escape any of us the dire warning that Sir Lester Bird has delivered on the state of Antigua and Barbuda’s tourism sector, the lifeblood of our economy.

And even though Asot Michael tried to smooth things over, a lot of what he said rings hollow, based on the reality of the situation. You cannot simply dismiss Sir Lester’s concerns out of hand; after all, he has been credited as the man who paved the way for the sector to flourish, similar to what Sir John Compton achieved in Saint Lucia.

During debate on the budget, Sir Lester made an observation which I have supported for a long time; why all this noise about diversifying away from tourism when the fact is that the hospitality and travel sector is a 7 trillion dollar industry worldwide? What we need to do is enhance the sector, and that is what the Prime Minister Browne has failed to do.

Sir Lester made a sobering observation when he said that in 16 years Antigua has only been able to increase its stay over visitors by 36,000 (265,000 overall). Asot Michael tried to deflect away from that by talking about cruise ship passengers. That’s great, but when you have Barbados boasting of 610,000 long-stay visitors, an increase of 8% in 2017, then that really does shed a whole new light on the topic.

While it is easy to say that all administrations over that period must be blamed, it is also important to note that it was within the last five years, maybe because of a strengthening of the US economy, that visitor arrivals have really shot up, and for the majority of that time the Gaston Browne administration has been in control.

I just mentioned Barbados, but Grenada has also announced record growth, an increase of 8% in one year alone to put long stay visitors for 2017 at 147,000. Saint Lucia has recorded a 9.2% growth in long stay arrivals in 2017 and a 21% increase in cruise ship visitors …while Jamaica broke the 4 million mark for the first time, welcoming 4.3 million visitors in 2017, a 12.1% increase from the previous year.

So while Mr. Michael plays politricks with the figures, the stark reality is that in a tangible sense, Antigua and Barbuda trails behind the rest of the region. And that for me is a worrying sign.

I have seen government talking about Sunwing and a few other projects, but again Sir Lester made a vital point. Sunwing and these other hotels bring at best three-star guests. You need to attract people who pay more; 4 and 5 star hotels. Your earnings per room will be much higher; their spending in the communities will be higher. So where are these big boys? Where are the top quality hotels?

There is one major difference between Gaston Browne and the Prime Ministers of the other territories mentioned; they all understand the importance of having a harmonious relationship with investors and a stable political climate. Saint Lucia’s Allen Chastanet, Jamaica’s Andrew Holness, Barbados’ Freundel Stuart and Grenada’s Dr. Keith Mitchell have proven to be leaders who put country first rather than ego.

Gaston Browne has created a toxic environment for investment with his hostile attacks on the hotel sector accusing hotels of being ‘brutal in their requirements’ and of refusing to pay taxes. He has even gone so far as to whine that “they hold you hostage to fortune’. Whoever the ‘local experts’ are now advising the Prime Minister on his tourism strategy, have clearly led him down a suicidal path of destruction. This has spilled over into an infantile rage about introducing ‘entrepreneurial socialism’ …a little thought out idea that reeks of nationalization.

Which key investor wants to invest in such a climate?

The fact is that successful tourism and promotion involves good leadership. Aside from those ads that Sandals has (and boy they have certainly experienced the Prime Minister’s wrath) I see very little promotion of Antigua’s amazing product on the world stage. Regional governments simply do not have the capacity to build out the product necessary to attract the visitor with high income (let’s face it; the back pack traveler only spends so much). Check any major hotel and their highest end rooms are always booked out first. So let’s just get over it. We need to attract investors in the sector with the capacity to build and financial power to market.

This does not mean we throw away the baby with the wash water? Our people must gain. What it means therefore is that we apply smart leadership skills to negotiate contracts that are mutually beneficial – and saying nasty things about investors does not represent smart negotiating skills.

The reality of it is that our hard core tourism product has indeed stagnated. The cruise ship market is a fickle one and things can change overnight in spite of what Mr. Michael says. The money that cruise ship passengers spend on the island is petty cash because the shopping on board is often better than on shore, so they offer very little compared with the stay over visitor.

Unless we can kick start the sector with high quality investments then we will be always be behind our CARICOM neighbours. Does Gaston Browne have the ability to do this; I have not seen it yet and I doubt he will get an epiphany overnight. There is no magic wand that he can wave that will suddenly make things right. We have a golden product, but PM Browne seems intent to turning it into fool’s gold, of no benefit to country and its people. Do we pray and hope for better? Well, yes we can, but when is too late, really too late?"

Get the latest local and international news straight to your mobile phone for free: