The Government of Trinidad and Tobago announced earlier this month that it would spend TT$5 million over the next eighteen months to raise public awareness in the twin-island republic regarding the importance of its tourism product. At the launch of the initiative the country’s Tourism Minister Stephen Cadiz declared that “unless we as a people buy in we will go nowhere. We are trying to create a new awareness of tourism.” He went on: “we want people to understand the value of tourism. In Trinidad and Tobago we just don’t understand the value of this industry. We want to tell Trinidad and Tobago how far into the economy the tourism dollar goes.”
It’s the old charity begins at home adage which argues that domestic appreciation of the value of a home-grown product – in this case T&T’s tourism sector – better positions that product for successful marketing away from home.
Oddly enough, just last week a handful of local tour operators and officials of the state-run Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) and the sector support organization Tourism and Hospitality Association of Guyana (THAG) made a presentation at a high level National Economic Forum designed to persuade the Government of Guyana to channel more resources into the promotion of the country’s tourism product.
By their own admission the GTA and THAG are cash-strapped, weak and, by extension, not very effective organizations. The GTA, particularly, is a manifestation of a chronic official uncertainty regarding government’s disposition to tourism. It functions as the rump of a Tourism Ministry, the substantive functions of which are unclear – and appears to have very little real authority of its own. The sight of a private sector-led tourism working group using the platform of last week’s National Economic Forum to appeal to government to provide more resources to the GTA puts the problems of the sector into perspective.
Upon reflection, part of the problem that the promotion of the tourism product has faced over the years, is that the handful of investors in the industry have been unable to entirely persuade the country’s political decision-makers that there is a tourism product to market, after all. Guyana may be blessed with the splendour of the Kaieteur Falls and the various other natural wonders. Whether, however, these qualify us as a serious tourism destination is for visitors to decide. Interestingly enough, the trend appears to have been for visitors to come to Guyana, head for particular sites, including the Kaieteur Falls, of course, then leave. There never really seems to be any particular inclination on their part to hang around.
Part of the problem here may simply have to do with what, these days, is the sheer unattractiveness of our capital; but that is only part of it. From time immemorial tourism has been a kind of cliché for our politicians. References to Kaieteur and to our “ecotourism potential” have become convenient political catchphrases, resorted to in public speeches without any real evidence of a serious commitment to the tourism product.. The state of our interior facilities – roads, airstrips, hospitality facilities etc. tell their own story of protracted official unwillingness to throw their weight behind the sector by investing in the creation of a tourism infrastructure.
Trinidad and Tobago, it seems, has decided that it is one thing to possess the infrastructure but quite a different matter to have to promote the product against the backdrop of an un-sensitized and indifferent national population which is also a large part of the problem that we in Guyana have. So, apart from externally targeted tourism marketing campaigns, local Trinidadians – who are the best sellers of the country’s tourism product – will now themselves be targeted.
Both the Government of Guyana and many of our tourist operators are not only indifferent to the vast disconnect between Guyanese residing at home and what we loosely call our tourism product; we also do not recognize that in circumstances where increasing numbers of Guyanese travel abroad, they, through contact with friends and relatives, can help subsidize official spending on marketing tourism abroad.
Much of this absence of local sensitivity to the country’s tourism product has to do with the underdevelopment of critical infrastructure, failure, over many years, to improve communication links among the various geographic sections of the populace, and the insistence on the part of government on a policy of minimal spending on internal marketing of the tourism product.
Frankly, the disconnect is far more profound than we might imagine. We still live in an age where – save and except, these days, to mine gold – coastal dwellers rarely venture into the interior of Guyana (which is where the tourism attractions lie and where, all too often, the sight of a group of interior-based Amerindians in the city still elicits quizzical stares from coastlanders.
Government, of course, has, for decades, continued to make what it feels are the right noises about tourism whilst refusing to undertake the kinds of investments that will build an industry. If one feels for the absence of response to the fervour of the handful of intrepid tour operators, the gaping anomaly in the pursuit of a viable tourism industry here has been the failure of the stakeholders – the tour operators, the government and the populace as a whole – to collectively buy into the idea that we have a tourism product worth marketing abroad. We must get to that point if we are to sell our tourism product to the world with any measure of conviction.