The problem with the Carnival is that there is no problem with the Carnival. The issue raised by the Carnival, on the other hand, is that the average (and even the not-so-average) Bahamian does not really believe that, with the country, he is in the business of Tourism. They see themselves as being in the building supplies, car sales, restaurant or real estate business, and therefore have not had an interest in either learning or even caring what makes the business of Tourism successful.
Just over a week ago, the Central Bank announced that in 2013, 77% of the new money that came into the economy came via Tourism. That is, 77% of the money we use to pay the interest on the loans we get to build state-of-the-art hospitals, nice new roads and packing houses came from Tourism. Whether we like it or not, we are all in the business of Tourism.
But what does it take to be successful in the business of Tourism? Contrary to popular belief, number of beds and airlift are not the keys. Freeport has the hotel beds to spare, but no business. Airlines will fly anywhere there is a demand. Tourists select their destination based on the promise of some experience or group of experiences made available to them at a particular destination. (And, by the way, a cruise ship is a destination in this search.) The packaging of the destination usually results in a brand (what you think of when the name is called). That brand is way more than what you advertise about yourself. It is what you create an expectation for, and deliver consistently over a long period of time. Ultimately, brands all fall under one of four categories: unique and compelling Places, destinations that share their History, communities with unique or compelling Belief Systems or a unique and interesting Lifestyle. The Bahamas has a very weak brand in the market – a Tropical Paradise – shared by a thousand destinations located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. In a highly competitive business, we have chosen to be just like everybody else.
The Ghurkas are a regiment of Indian soldiers, famous for their precise military drilling. I discovered them at the Edinburgh Festival ( a Festival in which I later performed as part of a Bahamian troupe). Probably the largest annual cultural event in London is a Caribbean Festival at Nottinghill Gate. The longest running Broadway production is Les Miserables. There are at least five productions by Cirque de Soleil, a Canadian attraction, in Las Vegas, all major attractions. Globally, Tourist destinations use the most powerful acts available to attract visitors, who then become the customers of local businesses. Over fifty years ago we understood this dynamic, and at least once a month there were top American stars in Nassau –Roy Hamilton, Nat “King Cole, Ben E. King, The Drifters, and a hundred others – where local night clubs (owned by local businessmen) hired Bahamian entertainers, barmen, waiters etc. If we would wish to play in today’s Tourism sandbox, we need to wear our big-boy pants, and stop whining.
The problem with Carnival is that it shines a light on our own lack of understanding of our National business. It is simply one event attraction at a destination that needs hundreds at this time, yet we are prepared to let it occupy all of our time and energy.
We need, therefore, to focus our attention on the problem with us. The biggest problem is that money distracts us. We lose focus quickly when a large number is called, and focus on the number of dollars instead of the business opportunity. For example, I mentioned that the purpose of an event attraction is to bring customers for local businesses. The look-in-the-mirror truth is that there are too few local businesses to make that effort worthwhile. There are no nightclubs that share our unique performing culture, no theatre available to visitors, too few museums, art galleries, art and craft centers, practically no local tours (birthplaces, churches, graveyards) local festivals (remember the Grove Festival?). Our History is not celebrated in museums, monuments and theatres. The accomplishments of our citizens, very many of them globally, are not shared in museums and monuments. Not only are there no businesses to benefit from the influx of visitors, but more importantly, too few places where the visitors can get to discover us. At the moment, we own a shop, are inviting customers in, but have nothing on the shelf.
It is time to stop placing our attention on one single attraction and understand that no matter how successful or unsuccessful the venture is, it will always only be one attraction, and cannot make or break our National business. We all have the responsibility (and the opportunity) to create hundreds more, and we must, if we are to succeed as a Tourist Destination.
The real problem with the Carnival is our lack of vision for our National business.
Pat Rahming
January 31, 2015