Barbados’ Minister for Tourism, Richard Sealy MP, attended the recent World Travel Market in London where delegates, tour operators and visitors from around the world gathered to shop for the next big holiday destination. In town to promote everything Barbados has to offer as a great place to holiday, the Minister shared with us his vision for his beloved Caribbean island.

Richard Sealy took up his portfolio as Minister for Tourism in 2008, just as the price of oil sky-rocketed, and the global recession struck. It was a double whammy that presented him with a raft of challenges and the Minister admits that his efforts since then have been twofold: steadying the ship and ensuring Barbados is fit to compete for a share of the tourism pie.

“When the crisis period hit just after I took up office, and for much of my time since then, the focus has really been about getting Barbados back on track, and getting our tourism offering in order and sufficiently lean and mean so that we are competitive. We operate in a global marketplace and we have to be set up so we can get business from anywhere around the world.”

Sealy’s engineering background and experience (he worked for some years in the private sector as a civil engineer) plus a Master’s degree in Business Administration, has equipped him with the analytical skills and the business nous he feels are necessary to help drive the tourism sector forward.

Taking on some of the long-standing and deep-rooted challenges the industry faces in Barbados, Richard Sealy has spearheaded the establishment of a $25million tourism industry relief fund that was designed to assist tourism stakeholders during the global economic turndown, and protect the large number of Barbadians who are directly or indirectly employed in the island’s large tourism sector.

A new way forward

Sealy also helped to produce a government white paper on tourism, outlining a policy that will become the country’s first tourism master plan. One key element of the plan is diversification. Historically, Barbados has relied on the UK market (which still accounts for over one-third of all international visitors) and the USA, but as important as these two are and will continue to be, Sealy observes, “Barbados has to broaden its marketing strategy and appeal to a wider audience. Well, without a doubt, the goal is to position Barbados as the finest warm weather island vacation experience that you can obtain anywhere in the world. If that is our vision, we have to understand that there are several components to making that a reality and that is what I spend much of my time doing on a daily basis, making sure that we can position ourselves in order to be excellent.”

This process has taken time, and has involved restructuring institutions to create a Tourism Product Authority.

“We now have a marketing entity and we have an investment company that facilitates investments. So, I believe we have the right infrastructure. Going forward, we must continue to recruit sensibly and we have, of course, to embrace the digital platform and all that has to offer and that in itself is very much related to the recruitment process. Making sure you have people who need to be 21st century compliant. Tourism, more than perhaps any other industry, apart from banking, has been completely revolutionised with the advance of information communication technology. We need to make sure we’re on the cusp if we want to continue to be relevant as a destination in the years ahead.”

Sense of fulfilment

So, eight years after taking up office and having restructured the local tourism industry, is Sealy satisfied everything is well and truly “back on track” and can Barbados look forward to welcoming greater numbers than ever to their shores?

“I’m satisfied. There is a sense of fulfilment that we have been able to accomplish certain things, because there is no doubt that we are going in the right direction as a nation. Considering the difficult time we had from 2008, right up through 2011. We are now in a position to report that 2015 was a record year in terms of long-stay arrivals, with around 592,000 for the year. In 2016, there will be more than 600,000, which represents another record year and the prospects are extremely positive in terms of further growth.”

But tourism is more than just about the numbers, of course: “Beyond just counting bodies, we are seeing an increase in the overall spend and that is a very important metric as far as I’m concerned. The economic impact is considerable, from the amount of money being left in the economy to the many opportunities that are being created for all Barbadians, not only in terms of employment opportunities, but also creating very real and sustainable entrepreneurial prospects. We have been placing some attention on that and I am happy to report that we are seeing and making some improvements in that department.”

Bitten by the “Barbados Bug”

There is also an awareness that attracting more visitors to Barbados is something of a balancing act and that there can be no blind rush for numbers, simply to boost revenue while putting the island’s natural beauty at risk. The traditional sun, sea, and sand holidays will always be popular, but increasingly ecotourism attracts visitors.

“There is some ecotourism that can occur on the island and we are pushing sustainable tourism with the view of keeping that element in mind. Barbados is a small island which is fairly densely populated, so our marine ecosystems are perhaps what we are best known for, as well as our beaches, pristine seas, and our reefs.”

Finally, during his time at the World Travel Market in London, did the Minister have a message for anyone thinking of coming to Barbados?

“Try it. Barbados is different from anywhere else in the Caribbean. We have a very high rate of repeat visitors and that’s because when people come for the first time they are bitten by the “Barbados bug” and it becomes not simply another location or destination, but a home away from home. I would invite everyone to come and try a little slice of Barbados and I am sure when they do it won’t be long before they come back again.”